Famine is not far off, whether we are leafing through the history books or through atlases. And the numbers, particularly in more recent times, are astounding.
In the 18th century there were sixteen periods of widespread food scarcity in France alone. In modern Europe the last great famine plagued Ireland (1816-17, 1846-47) and the Soviet Union (1921-22, 1932-33). Among the non-European countries, the most affected were India (1838, 1861, 1866, 1869, 1874, 1876-78, 1897, 1899-1901, 1943, 1965-66); China (1877-78, 1887-89, 1916, 1929-30, 1959-61); Congo (1960-61); Ethiopia (1973-74 and 1984-85); Bangladesh (1974); and North Korea (1995-99).
The most tragic famines of the last 100 years, perhaps, were those that exploded between 1959 and 1961 in China where between 15 and 30 million people died from hunger and related causes. Likewise, in 1943, over 3 million people died in Bengal, India and 2.5 million people in North Korea.
The economic analysis of the Bengal famine of 1943
Something has changed, however, in understanding the mechanisms that trigger these conditions. In 1977, Amartya K. Sen wrote Starvation and exchange entitlements: a general approach and its application to the Great Bengal Famine. The Indian economist was the first to note that the reduction in food availability per capita does not satisfactorily explain the waves of famine in an economy of exchange and can be refuted by empirical data. The current supply of rice and other food grains in 1943, Sen points out, was not much lower than in earlier years. There was then a lack of statistical testing of the assumption of a trend of excessive population growth rate in underdeveloped countries compared food production trends.
Instead, Sen noted that virtually every known famine has decimated a number of working groups (agricultural workers, fishermen, artisans and barbers in Bengal; agricultural workers in Bangladesh; agricultural workers and shepherds in Ethiopia), and focused heavity on what he has called "securities exchange", i.e. the individual's opportunity to exchange goods with other food. In fact, his case study showed inflationary pressures typical of a war economy and the wave of hoarding caused by a fear of price increases causing violent alterations in the possibility of exchange of labor or of other goods with rice, which was the main food staple. In short, certain groups used their economic power to handle a large amounts of food, snatching them from the lower classes.
The inadequacy of income
The World Bank, in the World Development Report of 1980, developed a thesis based on the famines of Ethiopia (1973-74) and Bangladesh (1974) that they were caused not by a decrease in the average amount of available food per capita but by local decreases in income from agricultural work.
Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998. Now, everyone knows that the inadequacy of income is by far the main cause of malnutrition and its credibility outstrips the cruel Malthusian-inspired theory that lack of food is due to an increase in population. WIth it Amartya Sen gave economists and legislators around the world a new tool with which to study world hunger. Understanding its causes, as with any disease, it is a fundamental step towards eradicating it.