Apr 1st 2022

Famines: what 20th century food crises tell us about how to cope with the Ukraine fallout

by Eoin McLaughlin, Chris Colvin and Matthias Blum

 

Eoin McLaughlin,  Senior Lecturer in Economics, University College Cork

Chris Colvin Senior, Lecturer in Economics, Queen's University Belfast

Matthias Blum, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Economics, Queen's University Belfast

 

 

Famines should be relegated to the history books, leading expert Cormac Ó Gráda argued in 2007, since “given good will on all sides, famine prevention should be ‘easy’”. Unfortunately, the current Russia-Ukraine war has revealed that good will is no longer on all sides. The UN is warning that the ongoing Russian blockade of Ukraine’s grain exports may trigger a global food emergency that could lead to famines.

Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, is struggling to export last year’s harvest, and may be unable to produce much this year either. In addition, the war has caused a global fertiliser shortage, which will push up food prices around the world too.

Coming at a time when the global pandemic had already increased food insecurity and depleted resources around the world, many countries may not be resilient to a major food crisis brought on by the war. Back-to-back global catastrophic events like this have not happened for close to 100 years.

Lessons from history

The 70 million people who died because of famines in the 20th century is more than the battlefield death toll of the two world wars combined. Most of this was associated with wars, with only one notable exception: the Ukrainian famine of 1931-33, known as the holodomor.

The holodomor caused the deaths of 2.6 million people out of a population of 32 million. Rival scholars have blamed weather, genocide and Stalinist economic policies for this disaster. However, recent work convincingly shows that it was a direct consequence of the Stalinist collectivisation of agriculture.

Soviet policies meant that land, livestock and implements belonged to collectives, but it was governments that set plans for what and when to plant. Harvested grain was put into storage and the government took its share before allocating the remainder to the collective members. Soviet governments prioritised feeding industrial workers over farmers.

This didn’t only happen in Ukraine. The holodomor was actually part of a wider Soviet famine which killed between 6 to 8 million people. The other areas affected were primarily agricultural areas in modern-day Russia and Kazakhstan. The obvious parallel with today is that both crises have been caused by authoritarian despots.

Another useful analogue is the case of Germany during the first world war. When war broke out in 1914, the German authorities had anticipated a short conflict – not too dissimilar to Russian assumptions a few weeks ago.

Just like in Ukraine now, the first world war severely disrupted German farming. Nitrogen was diverted away from fertiliser towards munition production. There was a shortage of manpower as farm labourers were enlisted in the war effort. Together, these led to shortfall in agricultural production that led to severe shortages. Exacerbated by an inability import enough food in wartime, civilians perished.

There were famine-like conditions in the country by the end of the war, and then the Spanish flu struck. Researchers suggest that this crisis fell disproportionately on the poorest citizens of the country, just as the current food crisis will be disproportionately felt by people in those countries that rely on cheap Ukrainian imports.

An angry food queue in Frankfurt 1916
Struggles for food in Frankfurt, 1916.

Preparing for the worst

Isolated cases of harvest failure can be compensated by food imports. But this is predicated on food being abundant elsewhere, and transport capabilities and infrastructure remaining intact. The fact that Ukraine is normally the source of abundant food used to feed the world’s hungry is what makes this situation particularly difficult.

Rationing systems cannot solve famines. If there is simply not enough food to go around, then any amount of rationing will not have an impact. Only in isolated situations, such as in besieged cities, can food aid reduce human suffering.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index, a gauge of food prices around the world, already hit an all-time high in February. Further increases seem inevitable, and this has caused famines in the past: the Indian economist Amartya Sen famously identified rising food prices as a major cause of the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed between 2 and 4 million people.

Price controls may not be very helpful either. Officials in Germany attempted this during the first world war, but it led to unofficial markets where prices were close to 20 times the official price.

The historical evidence suggests that increasing supply elsewhere in the world is the best way to mitigate food price inflation. For example, grain imports from the United States helped alleviate some of the shortfall caused by potato harvest failure in Ireland in the 1840s (while many people emigrated in the other direction).

This time around, production of wheat in other parts of the world is certainly needed. Finding good substitutes to other Ukrainian produce is also necessary, as Belgium’s frites makers have recently discovered. But at the moment, it is unclear which countries will be able to fill the large void left by the lack of production in Ukraine.

Supporting struggling countries

Gathering reliable intelligence about the possible severity of global food shortages is necessary to decide on effective solutions. It’s equally important to model likely price levels by the time of the harvest season, and communicating the results of these models to frontline farmers.

Farmers globally need to know what market price they can expect in order to make informed business decisions. Those farmers who anticipate higher prices for their produce by harvest time are more likely to till currently unused fields. However, it might already be too late in the year for such efforts to mitigate the full impact of the current crisis.

Countries that are most vulnerable to food inflation include Egypt, Syria and Afghanistan. Such nations must be prioritised for aid to increase production themselves. In the long term this will mean less need for aid, less human suffering, and an improved chance for farmers in less developed economies to benefit from a rich harvest of their own.

Future famine risks relate to how the world adapts to climate change. Our success at navigating the first serious global challenge to food security in the 21st century will indicate how well equipped we are to tackle multiple catastrophes in the future. We cannot prepare for one crisis in isolation. We need to think about how crises interact.

 

Eoin McLaughlin, Senior Lecturer in Economics, University College Cork; Chris Colvin, Senior Lecturer in Economics, Queen's University Belfast, and Matthias Blum, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Economics, Queen's University Belfast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "But even a resounding Russian defeat is an ominous scenario. Yes, under such circumstances – and only such circumstances – Putin might be toppled in some kind of coup led by elements of Russia’s security apparatus. But the chances that this would produce a liberal democratic Russia that abandons Putin’s grand strategic designs are slim. More likely, Russia would be a rogue nuclear superpower ruled by military coup-makers with revanchist impulses. Germany after World War I comes to mind."
May 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "For citizens of states that are members of NATO, taking all possible steps, short of all-out war, to ensure that Russia does not conquer Ukraine is not even an altruistic sacrifice. It is a long-term investment, for themselves and their children, in freedom, democracy, and the international rule of law."
May 4th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a remarkable transformation is taking place in Ukraine’s army amounting to its de facto military integration into Nato. As western equipment filters through to the frontline, Nato-standard weaponry and ammunition will be brought into Ukrainian service. This is of far higher quality than the mainly former Soviet weapons with which the Ukrainians have fought so capably. The longer this process continues and deepens, the worse the situation will be for the already inefficient Russian army and air force."
May 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: " The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes." ---- "Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?"
Apr 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "The following day Lavrov met his Eritrean counterpart, Osman Saleh, in Moscow. Eritrea was the only African country to vote against the UN resolution condemning the invasion. In this refusal to condemn Russia, Eritrea was joined by only Belarus, North Korea and Syria. Even longstanding allies such as Cuba and China abstained. It’s an indication of Russia’s increasingly limited diplomatic options as this war continues."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Although the milestone lasted only for a brief time, it points to a future in which California runs on 100% wind, solar, hydro and batteries, a future that will certainly arrive even faster than the state plans. As it is, California is ahead of its green energy goals." ...... "A world of 100% green energy and electric cars is not only a healthier and more comfortable world, it is a world where oil and gas dictators like Vladimir Putin are defunded."
Apr 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Kazakhstan’s authorities have also showed uncharacteristic leniency in allowing public rallies in support of Ukraine. Thousands of protesters holding banners reading “Russians, leave Ukraine”, “Long Live Ukraine” and “Bring Putin to trial” marched across the capital, Almaty, wrapping monuments to Lenin and other Soviet-era figures with yellow and blue balloons symbolising the Ukrainian flag."
Apr 15th 2022
EXTRACT: "People’s identification with the Soviet Union appears to have a clear and growing basis in Russian public opinion. Surveys we have conducted throughout the Putin period show that Soviet identification among the general population – something that had been steadily declining after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – began to increase in 2014, when the Russian government annexed Crimea and supported rebellions in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. By 2021, almost 50% of those surveyed identified with the Soviet Union rather than the Russian Federation."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "Worse yet, the Hungarian government has effectively been helping Putin by prohibiting the shipment of weapons to Ukraine across its borders. Hungarian public TV spreads Russian disinformation day and night. The day before the election, an assembly of ordinary people expressing solidarity with Ukraine was framed on state television as a “pro-war rally.” "
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "It may well be that the Russian army’s fate has already been sealed in what is likely to be a long war. The single qualification to this may be that Russia could default to escalation using “weapons of mass destruction” of one form or another – whether tactical nuclear warheads or chemical weapons."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACTS" "Ukraine and Russia produce a substantial amount of grain and other food for export. Ukraine alone produces a whopping 6% of all food calories traded in the international market. At least it used to, before it was invaded by the world’s largest nuclear power." ...... "When it comes to cereals like wheat, corn, rice and barley, the big players talk about millions of metric tonnes, or MMTs. A single MMT of wheat contains about 3.4 trillion food calories,." ....."Ukraine produced about 80 MMT of grain (a category that includes wheat, corn and barley) in 2021, and is expected to harvest less than half of that this year. A shortfall of 40 MMT is enough missing calories that a country like the UK could only make it up by having everyone stop eating for three years. That’s the thing about tonnes of grain: a million here and a million there and pretty soon you’ve got a real issue on your plate."
Apr 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "I don’t even know the little girl’s name. All I do know is what a friend of a friend wrote on Viber: that her relative, a senior nurse in one of Kyiv’s hospitals, “saw in the morgue a child with 20 varieties of sperm on her small body.” Since this information was conveyed in a private conversation, there is no reason to doubt its veracity."
Apr 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russian society has so far failed to stop Putin, just as German society failed to stop Hitler. And so, like a poisoned chalice, that task has fallen to the West, as it did in 1939. The West must now treat Putin and his regime the same way that Winston Churchill treated Hitler: Don’t talk to him, just defeat him. Dead-enders such as Putin are too fanatical and desperate to be reliable negotiating partners."
Apr 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "From 1807 to 1814 on the Iberian peninsula, Napoleon had to fight Spanish, Portuguese and British armies while beset by ubiquitous, ferocious insurgents. He described this war as his “bleeding ulcer”, draining him of men and equipment. It is the west’s aim to make Ukraine for Putin what Spain was for Napoleon. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, Ukraine and Nato will continue to grind away at Russia’s army, digging away at that bleeding ulcer and prolonging Russia’s agony on the military front, as the west continues its parallel assault on its economy. If Putin’s plan is to proceed with the Korea model, he will fail. There is a strong possibility that Putin has only a limited idea of how badly his army is faring. So be it – he’ll find out soon enough that there is now no path for him to military victory."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Policymakers expected that the country would be able to secure its energy supply entirely from renewable sources, so they resolved to phase out coal and nuclear energy simultaneously. The last three of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants are set to be shut down this year." ---- ".... the share of wind and solar power in Germany’s total final energy consumption, which includes heating, industrial processing, and traffic, was a meager 6.7%. And while wind and solar generated 29% of the country’s electricity output, electricity itself accounted for only about a fifth of its final energy consumption." ----- "If Germany suddenly halted Russian gas imports, gas-based residential heating systems – on which half the German population, approximately 40 million people, rely – and industrial processes that rely heavily on gas imports would break down....."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "For Putin, the past that matters most is the one the dissident author and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exalted: the time when the Slavic peoples were united within the Orthodox Christian kingdom of Kievan Rus’. Kyiv formed its heart, making Ukraine central to Putin’s pan-Slavic vision. ---- But, for Putin, the Ukraine war is about preserving Russia, not just expanding it. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently made clear, Russia’s leaders believe that their country is locked in a “life-and-death battle to exist on the world’s geopolitical map.” That worldview reflects Putin’s longstanding obsession with works of other Russian emigrant philosophers, such as Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Berdyaev, who described a struggle for the Eurasian (Russian) soul against the Atlanticists (the West) who would destroy it. ---- Yet Putin and his neo-Eurasianists seem to believe that the key to victory is to create the kind of regime those anti-Bolshevik philosophers most detested: one run by the security forces. A police state would fulfill the vision of another of Putin’s heroes: the KGB chief turned Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, is struggling to export last year’s harvest, and may be unable to produce much this year either. In addition, the war has caused a global fertiliser shortage, which will push up food prices around the world too. Coming at a time when the global pandemic had already increased food insecurity and depleted resources around the world, many countries may not be resilient to a major food crisis brought on by the war. Back-to-back global catastrophic events like this have not happened for close to 100 years." ----- "Another useful analogue is the case of Germany during the first world war. When war broke out in 1914, the German authorities had anticipated a short conflict – not too dissimilar to Russian assumptions a few weeks ago. Just like in Ukraine now, the first world war severely disrupted German farming."
Mar 31st 2022
EXTRACT: "The horrors of World War II – the death camps, slave labor, and inhumane experiments on people – produced a global commitment never to permit such crimes to be repeated. This began a transformation of international politics whereby appreciation of the value of every person’s life and dignity ensured that even most authoritarian governments at least paid lip service to human rights.  ----- But the Soviet Union and many of its successor states, particularly Russia, never internalized this change. More than three decades after the USSR collapsed, most post-Soviet countries are still governed according to the old “imperial” paradigm. So, it should come as no surprise that we are now witnessing a clash between fundamentally different sets of values and ultimate goals for statehood."
Mar 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "Referencing past legacies as a justification for present-day political decisions is often effective – such appeals trigger emotional reflexes and contribute to thinking about politics in terms of rivalry and defence. The irony within the tragedy of the current situation is that Putin will assuredly go down in history as the figure that did more to unite the Ukrainian people (albeit against Russia) than any other in recent memory."
Mar 24th 2022
EXTRACT: " Despite the death and destruction that Russia rains down daily on them, the vast majority of Ukrainians are bullish about the future: 77% believe the country is moving in the right direction, 93% think they can beat back Russia, and 47% expect to win in the next few weeks.  Ukrainian policymakers are no less bullish, driving a hard bargain in negotiations with the Russians. Several factors account for this remarkable optimism."