Famine: perspectives from the past and present


John Barber, Marion Casey, Jean-Michel Chevet, Michael Ellman, Stephan R.
Epstein, Michel Garenne, Peter Gray, Violetta Hionidou, Sophie Hohmann, Gary D. Libecap, Lambert Lumey, Marcus Noland, Cormac Ó Gráda (Organisateur), Gunnar Persson, Philipp Schofield, Carol H. Shiue, Joachim Von Braun,  Patrick Webb, Stephen Wheatcroft


Famine : interdisciplinary perspectives from the past and present
Cormac O’Grada
22th -28th May 2003

A very successful conference on ‘Famine: Interdisciplinary perspectives from the past and present’ was held at Les Treilles in late May 2003.  The organiser was Professor Cormac Ó Gráda, School of Economics, University College, Dublin.  The conference was attended by twenty scholars from three continents.  It was jointly sponsored by, and received financial assistance from, the European Science Foundation.
The conference attracted papers on various aspects of famines from economists, economic and social historians, and demographers.  Part of the conference’s remit was to compare historical and modern famines, and to consider the future likelihood of famines.  Throughout history poor harvests resulting from ecological shocks often have been the proximate causes of famines.  This holds less for the twentieth century than for earlier centuries, however.  In the present century, perhaps for the first time in history, only pockets of the globe, such as parts of Africa, Afghanistan, and North Korea, remain truly vulnerable to the threat of famine.  Moreover, for all the publicity attending modern famines (good from a humanitarian standpoint), their demographic impacts are minor.  Still, although there is little danger of population outstripping global food-producing capacity in the next generation or two, several of the papers presented at the conference offered a reminder that it would be naïve to rule out more ‘political’ famines in the future.
What follows gives a flavour of the proceedings.  The presentations are best summarised under four headings.  Four papers concentrated on the issue of Markets and Famines.  Their authors, their affiliations, and their titles were as follows:
[1] Cormac Ó Gráda (University College, Dublin), ‘Adam Smith and Amartya Sen: markets and famines in pre-industrial Europe’

[2] Violetta Hionidou (University of Southampton), ‘Black market, hyperinflation, and hunger: Greece 1941-44’.

[3] Phillip R. Schofield (University College Wales, Aberystwyth), ‘Responses to dearth and famine in the medieval English village’

[4] Stefan Epstein and Philip Epstein (London School of Economics), ‘Regional market integration and famines in Europe 1500-1780’

Ó Gráda’s presentation offered an analysis of how markets perform during famines. Other recent research tends to associate famine with market segmentation and hoarding. Ó Gráda’s evidence, based on an analysis of the spatial and temporal patterns of price movements during four famines in pre-industrial Europe, is that markets functioned ‘normally’ in times of crisis.
Violetta Hionidou presented a paper on the famine caused by the food crisis of 1941-1944 in Occupied Greece. The crisis followed the naval blockade was imposed by the allies after Greece was occupied.  A food scarcity quickly ensued, and assumed crisis proportions within months.  Hionidou’s main focus was on the operation of food markets, and in particular black markets, and what determined their way of operation.  Her data came from both archival sources and interviews conducted with famine survivors on the islands of Syros, Hios and Mykonos.  She documents the workings of food markets and popular attitudes towards the black market.
Phillip Schofield’s contribution pinpointed the impact of economic crisis and famine in pre-Black Death England on the land market and on land transfers.  He described his records of manor courts and ancillary material as the tip of an iceberg, an index of a wider response by the poorer and less visible in society.  The contribution by Stefan Epstein and Philip Epstein suggested that increasing market integration offered some insurance against harvest failure in early modern western Europe.

A second set of papers focused on the issue of Public Action and Agency.  Although economist Thomas Malthus denied the right of the hungry citizen to subsistence, rulers have long explicitly acknowledged a responsibility to help.  Over the centuries they employed a variety of strategies: the maintenance of public granaries, institutionalised care through poor laws, improvised soup kitchens, workfare, migration schemes.  Four papers considered some of the issues:

[5] Peter Gray (then University of Southampton, now Queen’s University, Belfast). ‘James Caird in Ireland and India: famine and land 1849-1880’

[6] Carol H. Shiue (then University of Texas, now University of Colorado), ‘Famine policies in Qing China: challenges, approach, and efficacy’

[7] Timothy Guinnane (Yale University), Desmond McCabe (Office of Public Works, Dublin), and Cormac Ó Gráda (University College, Dublin), ‘Agency and famine relief: Enniskillen workhouse during the Great Irish Famine’

[8] Marion Casey (New York University).  ‘Municipal refugee relief: the Famine Irish in New York 1845-51’

Peter Gray offered a useful comparative perspective on public policy towards famine in Ireland and India through the medium of James Caird, an influential Scotsman who had some experience of famine in both places.  A Scottish ‘practical farmer’ and later landowner, Caird by the late 1840s was emerging as a leading liberal agriculturalist, a staunch supporter of free trade in food and an advocate of ‘high farming’, but for historians of famine his main claim to fame was as the joint-author of the dissenting minute contained in the Indian Famine Commission report of 1880.  Caird’s interventions on famine reflected what Grey dubbed a ‘Peelite’ position.  Caird’s interventions on Ireland and India both reflected a concern for the promotion of agricultural entrepreneurship, the related project of actively assisting economic development in ‘backward’ economies, and an acknowledgment of state responsibility for preserving life. The history of this ‘Peelite’ tradition arguably reveals something about the evolution of British thinking about famine in the nineteenth century, and the role of Irish-Indian comparison in moulding and determining this.
Assessing the success or otherwise of a relief effort is not easy.  A comparative and contextual perspective is necessary.  Guinnane, McCabe, and Ó Gráda presented a case study of a local relief administration at work in Ireland, those charged with administering the poor law union of Enniskillen, and found it wanting by several measurable criteria.  Relative to neighbouring poor law unions Enniskillen opened its workhouse late, was laggard in collecting rates, and ineffective in preventing its poor from dying of infectious diseases.  Marion Casey’s contribution offered a preliminary perspective on a very rich source on Irish Famine immigrants in New York City, the inmate registers of the municipal hospital and asylum complex on Blackwell’s Island
Carol Shiue produced a wide-ranging analysis of the scope and effectiveness of relief policy during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), China’s last imperial government.  She found that the rulers ‘did many things right’, both in minimizing the likelihood of disaster and in dealing with it when it struck, but that agency issues prioritised certain regions over others.

A third theme at Les Treilles was ‘Political Famines’.  The papers here were:

[9] Sophie Hohmann (Doctoral candidate, EHESS, Centre d’Etudes du Monde Russe, Paris) and Michel Garenne (Directeur de Recherche, IRD, Dept Santé et Sociétés, Paris), ‘Cotton, grain, and Bolsheviks: the famine in Turkestan 1917-1921’

[10] S.G. Wheatcroft (University of Melbourne), ‘Towards mapping and explaining the Soviet famine of 1931-3: political and natural factors in perspective’

[11] Michael Ellman (University of Amsterdam). ‘The Soviet famine of 1947’

[12] Marcus Noland (Institute of International Economics, Washington D.C.), ‘Famine and reform in North Korea’

[13] Christian Thibon (Université de Pau), ‘Famine and forced migration: the Great Lakes region and Burundi from 1993 to the present’

The first four of the above contributions analysed famines in ‘socialist’ economies, and provoked considerable discussion as to the connection between state planning and famine.  The lack of markets, the controls on the movement of people, the rejection of foreign aid, the lack of free speech, the dogmatic prioritisation of long-term goals over present-day needs, the fear instilled by the sheer brutality of the likes of Stalin and the Korean leadership: any of these factors could exacerbate a crisis.  The papers suggested several complicating exogenous factors, however: civil war and foreign military intervention in the case of the Soviet Union and Turkestan in the 1920s, and adverse weather conditions in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and the North Korea in the 1990s.  The ‘famine’ in the last-mentioned case was the most enigmatic of all; hard evidence on the extent of excess mortality and of what people died of is still lacking.  Whether it truly constituted a classic famine, or might be better characterised as a new higher-mortality steady state remained unclear.  Christian Thibon offered a perspective on a tragic decade in the Great Lakes region of Africa, highlighting the resilience of those at risk and the variety of survival strategies adopted by them.
A series of famines in Turkestan at the time of the Soviet revolution killed about a sixth of the population between 1917 and 1921. Hohman and Garenne investigated the complex causes of famine in an area where agriculture and trade were quite developed at that time. Russian colonization during the second part of the 19th century is revealed to have played a role by (a) disrupting the traditional socio-economic system and (b) imposing a new agricultural system, based on intensive production of cotton and massive exports in exchange of grain imports from Russia and Ukraine. A drought occurred in 1916-7 had a serious impact on agricultural production, resulting in a large price increase, which went soon out of control.  The Bolshevik revolution induced a civil war throughout the empire, cutting the railways between Russia and Central Asia, and therefore the grain supply.  The new political order favoured the Russians installed in Central Asia and imposed strict controls on economic activity. The result of these major disruptions was a generalized famine. The crisis was also associated with massive migration and epidemics. This poorly documented famine appears therefore as a consequence of the numerous disruptions in the local economic and political system imposed by the colonizers, both Tsarist and Bolshevik, more than a sole consequence of communism.

Finally, the conference discussed two papers on ‘Near Famines’, in France in 1846-7 and in the U.S. Dust Bowl in the 1930s.  These were:

[14] Jean-Michel Chevet (INRA, Paris) and Cormac Ó Gráda (University College, Dublin), ‘What were demographic crises like in mid-nineteenth century France?’

[15] Gary D. Libecap (University of Arizona), ‘Small farm failure, soil erosion and near famine: the U.S. Dust Bowl in the 1930s’

Jean-Michel Chevet presented the results of joint work with Cormac Ó Gráda.  He began with a review of a topic that has generated a substantial debate in French historiography, viz. the supposed link between grain prices and excess mortality in France.  That debate has involved leading scholars such as Meuvret, Labrousse, Braudel, and Chaunu.  Their focus was mainly on ancien régime France.  Chevet and Ó Gráda show that, whatever about the strength of the link in earlier times, it had attenuated to nothing by the mid-1840s.  The significant rise in grain prices in 1846 did not provoke a significant rise in mortality in that year or in the next.  Hardship, yes; famine, no.  Nor was their any correlation across the hexagon between price rises or harvest shortfalls, on the one hand, and mortality, on the other.
The focus of Gary Libecap’s paper was the most serious agricultural distress in U.S. history, that affecting the Great Plains in the 1930s. The plight of the region’s farmers was chronicled in the photographs of Dorothea Lange and the writings of John Steinbeck.  A combination of drought, wind erosion, and collapsing commodity prices brought a sharp decline in agricultural incomes, farm failure, and out-migration. The Great Plains states had the highest rates of migration and New Deal relief expenditures.  Small farmers, particularly, were affected. The Great Plains was the last part of North America to be settled by whites. Most settlement occurred in the early 20th Century under the Homestead Act. The farms that were founded were too small to be economically viable over the long term. A lack of understanding of the region’s semi-arid climate, unusual rainfall during the settlement period, and political pressure to maximize the farm population blocked major change in the land distribution policy. When brutal drought appeared in the 1930s, these small farms failed. Moreover, cultivation practices by small farmers intensified produced the Dust Bowl. Relief payments and out-migration prevented famine.

All participants appreciated the warm hospitality and tremendous facilities afforded them at Les Treilles.  Several of the papers have been published since the conference.  These include:

[2], [10], and [14], published in a special edition of Food & Foodways, vol. 12(2-3), 2004.  See too Violetta Hionidou, Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, 1941-1944 (Cambridge, 2006), Ch. 6.

[1], published as ‘Market and famine in pre-industrial Europe’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 36(2), Autumn 2005, pp. 143-166.

[6], published as ‘The political economy of famine relief in China’, 1740-1820’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 36(1), Summer 2005, pp. 33-55.

[15], published as Hansen, Zeynep K. and Gary D. Libecap, ‘Small Farms, Externalities, and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s’. Journal of Political Economy 112 (2004): 665-694.

[5], published as ‘Famine and land in Ireland and India, 1845–1880: James Caird and the political economy of hunger’ in Historical Journal, xlix (2006).

[7], available at http://www.ucd.ie/economics/research/papers/2003/WP03.15.pdf

Readers seeking copies of other papers are welcome to contact the individual authors.

Cormac Ó Gráda

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