Gone are the days of “calamitous” famines.
Over the past 50 years, famines that contributed to more than 1 million deaths have been eliminated, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s 2015 Global Hunger Index.
And calamitous famines aren’t the only ones vanishing. The death toll from “great” famines, defined as killing more than 100,000 people, dropped from some 15 million in five separate decades in the 20th century to 600,000 in the 21st century thus far.
What has changed?
Most famines are caused by war and repression, says Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation and author of an essay in the 2015 Global Hunger Index on armed conflict and hunger. In fact, he says, about 78 percent of all famines from 1870 to 2015 occurred in regions engaged in violent conflicts or under political repression. Increased international oversight and a shift away from totalitarian regimes have helped reduce famine-inducing conflicts.
“There are no conflicts in the world that truly justify a resort to arms to solve them,” he says. Still, “it is possible to conduct armed conflicts without causing mass starvation.”
International humanitarian law now prohibits the use of starvation as a weapon of war, whether intentionally depriving a population of food or inadvertently blocking access, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Furthermore, it is difficult for a famine to escalate unnoticed in a globalized society. People’s voices are heard on an international scale, infrastructure is in place to head off food shortages before they strike, and trade and transport of resources happen on a global scale.
But previous political climates have not fostered such success stories, Dr. de Waal says. Past famines came along with three political shifts: the colonial age, the world wars, and the rise of Asian communism.
From the 1870s to World War I, imperialism disrupted farming, trade, labor, and economic systems in colonized regions. Tens of millions of people died from famine across Asia, Africa, and South America.
Then the world wars ushered in the second wave of famines. Some of these military powers used mass starvation as a weapon. One notable example is the Nazi Hunger Plan during World War II, which aimed to starve 20 million to 30 million people to death in German-occupied Soviet Union territories (ultimately about 4.2 million died).
The rise of communist regimes in Asia brought new episodes. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, for example, is linked to a famine that killed an estimated 30 million.
Although famines are decreasing over time, the past few years have seen an uptick in hunger and smaller famines. Centered in Syria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen, these cases, too, stem from conflict.
“If it had not been for these recent increases in conflict, we would be set to eliminate famines from the world within a few years,” de Waal says.
“Conflicts make countries hungry and severe conflicts make them severely hungry,” says Klaus von Grebmer, research fellow emeritus with the International Food Policy Research Institute. But with peaceful resolution and good governance, he says, over time, “hunger will be history.”
Eliminating hunger poses different challenges than those associated with reducing discrete episodes of famine. And hunger doesn’t just mean starvation, points out Dr. von Grebmer. There are also less visible problems such as malnutrition.
There are still hot spots where hunger is more severe than in others, von Grebmer says. But overall there is progress. “Hunger is decreasing around the world along with poverty decreasing,” de Waal says.
“Poverty is always political,” says Rajeev Patel, a researcher at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “Poverty is the sort of thing that doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of a range of political choices.”
“Ultimately it is a political choice to allow or to stop famine,” Dr. Patel says. “The tools we need to end hunger are well proven, and range from agroecology to better trade regimes to women’s empowerment.”