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What Was Famine?

The political economy of mass starvation, and why it is largely a thing of the past.

Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future
Cormac Ó Gráda
Princeton University Press

The Irish economist Cormac Ó Gráda has written a rarity: a coolly rational, cautiously cheerful book about the most viscerally upsetting subject imaginable, mass death from hunger. The United Nations defines a famine as a food emergency in which daily child mortality rates reach four per 10,000 children and at least a fifth of the population subsists on fewer than 2,100 calories per day. Two centuries ago, Ó Gráda notes, these conditions “would probably have been the norm” in most of Europe. That is, what would today be called famine was a constant presence in one of the world’s richest regions. Today, for the first time in human history, famine has nearly vanished (though hunger hasn’t). Rather than being a permanent condition, it is almost always temporary.

For Ó Gráda, perhaps the world’s expert on the history and economics of famine, now is the time to understand this long-standing terror. He asks: What causes famine? What is the best way to alleviate it—vast government programs that distribute food and punish speculators, or the promotion of free trade, in the belief that merchants will rush in to fill food shortfalls? Does aid, as critics allege, overwhelm local farmers and leave societies less able to cope with crises? Are famines often caused by political decisions? Eating People Is Wrong, a series of five linked essays, is mostly intended to answer these questions.

“Mostly” because the first essay—the one that gives the book its title—is an outlier. It is an extended discussion of whether cannibalism has been a feature of famines worldwide or whether it has been restricted to certain areas. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, claims that non-Western areas have cannibalized most avidly, because “Westerners abhor cannibalism.” Ó Gráda argues, in effect, that desperation is desperation, and that people in almost all societies have practiced—and excused—cannibalism during famines. To prove Diamond wrong, Ó Gráda recounts many examples of Western cannibalism, all ghastly and most sad beyond imagining. I’m not sure what the point of the essay is, other than flinging a dart at Diamond. Perhaps the intent is to persuade the reader that famine is awful. Color me convinced.

The rest of this short, crisp book turns to the main themes, devoting special attention to two famines: one in colonial Bengal in 1943-44, and the other during China’s Great Leap Forward in 1959-61. The first of these was little known outside India until 1981, when the Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen argued in Poverty and Famines that its two million deaths were due not to an actual lack of food but to misguided government policies. India had plenty of grain at the time, Sen said. But British wartime policies allowed speculators to drive up prices. Meanwhile, the colonial government effectively split the population into two groups, one of which, deemed useful to the fight against Japan, had access to food at subsidized prices and one of which, deemed useless, did not. The first thrived; the second died. In Sen’s phrase, what happened in Bengal was a “boom famine”: starvation amid plenty.

Sen’s contention that the deaths reflected human choice rather than natural disaster set off a furious, decades-long debate about the Bengal famine—and, by extension, all famines. Ó Gráda’s book, the latest salvo, claims that Sen got it partly right and partly wrong. Using an impressive variety of data, Ó Gráda argues that Bengal did experience a big harvest shortfall that year, but that the massive price increase was not due to plutocrats’ greedy speculation. Instead, most of the deaths were due directly to British policies. Marrying incompetence and bigotry, the colonial government not only blocked outside merchants from sending in grain, but actually requisitioned what rice there was in Bengal for “valuable” war workers in cities, starving the countryside. Belatedly asked by British officials in India for outside aid, Churchill scoffed at “Indians breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day by us for doing nothing about the war.” Given this kind of leadership, one can’t be surprised that Bengal got no help for far too long.

Bengal is not alone. It is common in food emergencies to blame hoarders and speculators—the “hardened wretches,” as the Irish famine novelist William Carleton wrote in the 1840s, who greet misery with “extortion and rapacity.” A less inflammatory approach is to ask how, and whether, markets work in famines. Weighing evidence from four famines—two in early modern France, a Finnish famine in 1868, and the famous Irish potato famine of the late 1840s—Ó Gráda finds that data failed “to support the claim that hoarding was more common during the famine than in normal years.”

Millions died in the Bengal famine of 1943-44 even though India's food production remained high. (Photo: Reuters)

Millions died in the Bengal famine of 1943-44 even though India's food production remained high. (Photo: Reuters)

This leads to one of Ó Gráda’s main themes: In nations with functioning markets, famines are rare. When harvest shortfalls occur in these places, prices go up. Some speculators then try to profit unduly by withholding grain, but they are overwhelmed by the number of purveyors outside the famine who want to make a little extra money. New supplies come in; grain prices decline; the famine is alleviated. Governments can help best by giving the poorest enough money to buy food during the interval when prices are high. In sum: Adam Smith got a lot of this right.

Democracy, too, is important, as is a free press. Ó Gráda devotes much attention to China’s Great Leap Forward of 1959-61, “the greatest famine in recorded history.” It began as an attempt to lift the Chinese economy rapidly to parity with Britain’s and ended with at least 20 million dead and the national economy in ruins. Ó Gráda’s essay is the best—and fairest—short account of this pivotal event that I have encountered. Most Western histories emphasize Mao Zedong’s culpability, which is correspondingly minimized by most Chinese histories. Ó Gráda provides the context. China, he points out, was then one of the world’s poorest nations, with a per capita income that by some measures was less than two percent of that in the United States. The Communist government, afraid of U.S. military intervention, bet on being able to forcibly convert “unproductive” rural laborers into an industrial workforce that could support military expansion. When China lost the gamble, there was no cushion to ease the burden. As lagniappe, Mao had created a state bureaucracy that was fearful of delivering bad news. And there was no free press to present it anyway. The cost of Mao’s self-imposed ignorance was millions of deaths.

The Great Leap Forward represented a low point. The worst famine in recent decades occurred in Somalia in 2011-12. About a quarter of a million people died—a horrendous total, but nothing like what has happened in the past. By 2013, it was over, though the nation remained beset by poverty and war. Indeed, as Ó Gráda notes, famines are becoming sufficiently short and uncommon that charity organizations that began as emergency famine-relief agencies (Concern Worldwide, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children) have begun shifting their focus to promoting general development—there’s not enough famine anymore. Even a near-doubling of world grain prices in 2008 did not lead to famine anywhere on Earth.

At the same time, one must be cautious. Climate change presents, to say the least, the prospect of new difficulties. And hunger and malnutrition are still with us. Ó Gráda’s successors need not fear irrelevancy. There will be need for cool analyses of human suffering for the foreseeable future.


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