Famine throughout History


Whether it happens because of poverty, conflict, or demographic problems such as population imbalance, famine has always been one of the worst disasters to affect human life. It is a major contributor to poor health due to malnutrition, as well as the rise of death rates, in different countries at different times of history. Indeed, famine can and has been a grim reaper of millions of lives; not only that, but also in a very painful way, since death by starvation is not immediate and often hits the youngest and the elderly first and most. Malnutrition caused by starvation is not the sole bad effect of famine; infectious diseases that badly affect the immune system is another terrible facet of famine.

Food prices’ volatility caused by bad harvests has been a major contributor to increasing famine. Food shortages lead traders to increase food prices; as a result, the opportunity for many people to get their needs is reduced. Traders monopolize local markets; they try to make the best profits by raising prices, so they do not sell food supplies immediately, but wait for the prices to rise, thereby restricting the overall supply to consumers.

Poverty often plays a role; in this case, the problem is not only where to get the food, but not being able to afford basic food needs. It is not surprising that countries where famines occur tend to be very poor. This correlation also reflects the fact that poorer countries tend to have less adequate facilities, such as, transport infrastructure, sanitation, and healthcare systems, all of which play a key role in preventing or moderating the impacts of food shortages.

Many of the major famines have occurred as the consequence of war; in some cases, it is actually used as an intentional part of the political or military strategy. As of the second half of the 20th century, famines in Africa have become increasingly associated with civil war; in many cases in places that were not previously prone to famines at all. In addition to direct casualties, conflict can disrupt production and trade, as well as encourage the spread of epidemics, particularly through forced migration and blockage of humanitarian relief to those in need.

As opposed to death by literal starvation, the vast majority of people that die during famines actually succumb to infectious diseases or other illnesses, with some diseases being more directly linked to diet than others. Famines brought on by drought and scarcity of clean drinking water increase the threat of cholera and other diseases. Moreover, increased migration, the disruption of personal hygiene, sanitation routines, and healthcare systems increase the risk of outbreaks of infectious diseases combined with malnourishment.

Having shed light on the crises over centuries (read here), it is clear that there is an evident diminishing in the occurrence of life-taking famines in recent decades compared to earlier eras, which is a good sign. However, this does not eliminate the risk of famine, which faces roughly 80 million people currently living in a state of crisis-level food insecurity and therefore requiring urgent action.

 Hopefully, the United Nations has a sharp focus on "Zero Hunger" goal in their sustainable development goals agenda, which aims at eliminating hunger and providing nutritious food for all and generate decent incomes, while supporting rural areas and protecting the environment. This goal will revitalize millions that will make the world a better place for them and end long-lived hard times of food scarcity.






*Published in SCIplanet, Summer 2019 issue.

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