Fighting off Famine

Jun 25, 2021  | 7 min  | Ep4645

Food insecurity is a persistent problem. In some cases, that insecurity has led to famine. The World Food Program estimates 155 million people in 55 countries faced acute hunger last year. The bleak numbers have been motivation for governmental and non-governmental organizations to keep up the fight to eradicate hunger and famine.

Despite the persistent problem Collen Bradford Krantz found the outlook may be a bit more positive. This is our Cover Story.

Just a generation ago, it would have been hard to imagine someone saying this:

Ken Menkhaus, Davidson College, Charlotte, North Carolina: "We have been quite successful at reducing and almost eliminating famine from the world.”

Ken Menkaus, a political science professor at North Carolina’s Davidson College, isn’t the only one who has noted how close the world has come to wiping out famine.

Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York: “Historically, they were recurrent. So famines have disappeared. That’s excellent news.”

The one exception noted by these professors and the United Nations, which helps determines when a hunger crisis is officially declared a famine, is the situation in the African nation of Somalia just over a decade ago.

Ken Menkhaus, Davidson College, Charlotte, North Carolina: “I think in the ‘70s, ‘80s and into the ‘90s, famine was tragically very much a part of the political landscape in a variety of places, especially in Africa…It would have surprised people to hear me say just 20 or 30 years later that we thought we had conquered famine... And that’s why the famine in Somalia in 2011, which claimed over a quarter of a million lives, was such a setback. And so stunning for us, it was a reminder that we haven’t in fact solved all the underlying problems.”

The world has, however, dramatically reduced famine-related deaths, most of which result from weakened immune systems combined with normally minor illnesses rather than directly from starvation.

Since the 1860s, the Americas have represented a small portion of such deaths. The same is true of the Middle East. Historically, Asia - India and China in particular - struggled for generations with severe and recurring famines, a situation that eased with agriculture’s “green revolution,” which provided the region with better plant genetics in the 1970s. Parts of Europe suffered famine through the early- to mid-1900s, including a World War II cluster of hunger-related deaths. Since the 1990s, Africa remains the only region still struggling with famine, though on a smaller scale than was typically seen in the past.

Many of the historic famines were tied to either war or natural disasters, such as a crippling drought. But with improved transportation and logistics for the movement of food, and advances in agricultural production, experts say today's natural disasters are less likely to result in widespread death.

Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York: You can now efficiently move supplies from places with surpluses to places which have shortages in a very rapid fashion. And that’s the reason of many famines in human history in the past: it was not because the food supply was not there. It could not be moved.”

Ken Menkhaus, Davidson College, Charlotte, North Carolina: More responsive government is key. Amartya Sen, a famous Indian writer on this topic, made a claim that was backed by strong evidence that democracies don’t experience famine because democratic governments have to respond to the needs of the people and do in famine-like conditions. But there’s also a number of other factors: The Green Revolution has dramatically…increased production. We’ve got better food distribution systems and we’ve got high-tech and low-tech abilities to monitor crops and yields, long before we get to a loud humanitarian crisis.”

Both professors say the work done so far to feed the world during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a remarkable example of the resiliency of the world’s food system.

Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York: The pandemic was a gigantic stress test on our food supply systems in the United States, in particular…It took some few weeks and months to resolve a lot of headaches, to adapt, but there was no technical shortages.”

Ken Menkhaus, Davidson College, Charlotte, North Carolina: I remember going to the grocery store at one point and they didn’t have blueberries. And for a second, I was kind of put-off by that. Then I realized, ‘Well, dude, we’re living in a pandemic, you know? I mean maybe there aren’t supposed to be blueberries here now.’”

One potential consequence of the pandemic on future famines, however, is the financial pressure that may follow the U.S. government’s accumulation of an unusually large amount of COVID-related debt in the last two years. (Chart) However, foreign aid is typically only a small percentage of the federal budget - about one percent most years.

Ken Menkhaus, Davidson College, Charlotte, North Carolina: It could affect down the road the level of U.S. foreign aid that is manifested in actual money, that’s allocated to development assistance. I don’t think it’s going to affect humanitarian assistance in part because we continue to be a major producer of surplus food and we want to find constructive ways to use that.”

Menkhaus is more concerned about the most significant remaining barrier to fully eradicating famine.

Ken Menkhaus, Davidson College, Charlotte, North Carolina: “We’ll never see famine eradicated as long as food can be used as a political weapon. And that, unfortunately, is what is happening right now in a different part of the Horn of Africa… the Tigray region of Ethiopia, northern Ethiopia, there is a war, a military operation going on in which food aid is being blocked. And we’re now hearing…that we are just a few steps away from the possibility of seeing outright famine there again.”

Menkaus, who witnessed hunger and starvation when living in Somalia during an earlier famine, says it’s important to remember food insecurity will continue to be a major concern, even if the world keeps the wolves at bay by holding off future famines.

Ken Menkhaus, Davidson College, Charlotte, North Carolina: “That has a searing effect on you when you see babies that malnourished. I got back to the United States and my first trip to the local grocery store, just to pick up groceries and set up normal life. I got to the produce section and I just started crying. I just lost it. It was the only time. I had to wait until I got all the way back to the U.S. to see that level of plenty to realize and process what I had just seen in the famine….It just strikes you what a miracle our food system is.”

By Colleen Bradford Krantz for Market to Market, colleen.krantz@iowapbs.org

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