The coronavirus pandemic has ricocheted around the world, forcing half of all human beings into lockdown and affecting nearly every aspect of life. Of the many brewing disasters to come from this extreme disruption is a potentially devastating threat: hunger. The pandemic has severely disrupted supply chains and logistics networks that move goods around the world. The unprecedented economic standstill has left millions throughout the world without the means to purchase subsistence. The executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme has warned that the pandemic could place another 130 million people at risk of food insecurity, meaning a billion people face food insecurity worldwide. There is the real possibility of famines of “biblical proportions” in the very near future.
These predictions from the U.N. may feel inevitable. But as a historian whose research focuses on famines in the 19th and 20th centuries, I have studied countless instances of avoidable starvation. What this history teaches us is that famine is rarely inevitable; it is a choice. That remains true today, even considering what we’re facing.
For a long time, thinking about famine was influenced by the theories of the English political economist Thomas Malthus. Writing in the late 18th century, Malthus argued that human tragedies like famine and disease were necessary facts of life resulting from unchangeable natural laws. Population, he believed, grew at a rate far greater than even the fastest possible increases in food production. Because of these different rates of growth, it was inevitable for excess population to be killed off by disease and starvation. Mass death was nature’s way of bringing resources and population into equilibrium. Resistance was futile, or as he put it: “To prevent the recurrence of misery, is, alas! beyond the power of man.”
The Malthusian view of famine was forcefully challenged nearly 40 years ago by the Indian economist Amartya Sen. The influential opening lines of his 1981 book Poverty and Famines laid out a new relationship between starvation and food supply: “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.” Sen and his followers have shown that in most, if not all, of history’s most devastating famines, there were more than enough calories available to avoid starvation. The problem was getting those calories to the people who needed them.
If starvation happens despite there being enough food for everyone, why has famine so often been considered an inevitable natural disaster? Why do we keep letting them happen? My research suggests three categories of thought that are used as justifications for the persistence of famines.
The first is ecological. Certain areas of the world, this thinking goes, just happen to be prone to droughts, or floods, or vermin, or hurricanes, all of which ruin crops and cause food shortages. But historians and economists have demonstrated that environmental misfortunes should not necessarily lead to famine. Sen’s analysis of the Bengal famine of 1943, for example, shows that while British colonial officials blamed cyclones, floods, blight, and war for reducing the food supply, there was still more than enough food to avoid starvation. In this case, a misguided acceptance of environmental determinism led to millions of needless deaths.
Natural disasters always occur in a social context, even aside from being influenced by human actions like anthropogenic climate change. In fact, it may be said that the whole point of having a society is to manage our relationship with nature to our advantage. The massive locust swarms currently afflicting East Africa, for example, could be considered a misfortune that must be endured, or they could be seen as a problem humans have the capacity to solve. Rather than accepting natural disaster as an endpoint, a commitment to ensuring that people have control over the material resources needed for subsistence can overcome any crop deficit caused by the insects.
The second category of excuse is racial. This way of thinking was especially prevalent under European colonial rule, which ended only in the 1960s. The people who lived in famine-prone environments, the thinking went, just happened not to be evolved or civilized enough to deal with hardship in a rational way. Lack of foresight, laziness, and technological backwardness meant that they didn’t have the tools to overcome famine. While few today would be quite so explicit in their racism, certain strains of development and neoliberalism have inherited these victim-blaming tendencies, dressed up as values of personal responsibility or anti-corruption moralism. Needless to say, it is useless, not to mention offensive, to dabble in such views. The causes of famine should be sought not in condescending stereotypes of personal behavior but in a global economic system that is good at extracting resources but barely functional at getting people enough calories.
Finally, there is the idea that famines are an economic inevitability. This is an update on the Malthusian view that there is simply not enough food to go around. The free market has often been invoked as though it were itself an unchangeable fact of nature whose outcomes simply have to be accepted as the best possible ones. If people starve, this is in spite of the market’s rational distribution of resources, not because of it. But in fact, famines are a failure of markets to provide for people’s needs.
Naturalizing markets in this way is an abdication of both causal and moral responsibility for famines, a way to avoid reality and the ethical consequences for people in a position to change things. Markets are not given; they are predicated on a host of laws and social conventions that can, if the need arises, be changed. It makes no sense for American farmers to destroy produce they can’t sell while food banks are struggling to keep up with demand. This kind of thinking is a way for powerful people to outsource ethical choices to the market, but the market has no conscience.
These three categories of excuse—the ecological, the racial, and the economic—serve to mystify the basic but unpalatable fact that famine is a choice we make. Experts agree that there is currently no global food shortage. Nonetheless, the coronavirus pandemic has increased the likelihood of starvation for the world’s most vulnerable people. These are indeed difficult challenges, but ones that can be addressed.
The potential famines feared by the U.N. need not come to pass. We should not accept a Malthusian fatalism when we have the food and understanding to prevent tragedy. The economic and technical elements of starvation are complex, especially at a time of social distancing. Yet the limiting factors are not technical but political. Famine is above all a problem of will. Governments must decide that fulfilling the basic biological need for food is the No. 1 priority. It is not impossible to unite the world’s abundant food supplies with its hungriest people. This may involve making sacrifices—economic ones regarding the allocation of resources, ideological ones regarding deeply held principles relating to free markets and individual merit. But the alternative is to deny millions of people their most basic social and biological existence, to quite literally expose them to death. And the virus has caused enough death already.