Wars and political calculations fuel famine

Wars and political calculations fuel famine

In the 20th century, an estimated 70 million people died as a result of famine. A look into the history shows: Almost always wars or authoritarian rulers were the cause of hunger.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

The war in Ukraine threatens the food security of many countries. The ongoing fighting threatens to cause catastrophic crop failures in Europe's grain chamber. Sowing in the spring is under threat. The same applies to the summer harvest of winter wheat already sown in autumn. Countries such as Egypt and Lebanon import large quantities of their wheat from Ukraine. In the worst case scenario, the threat of crop losses and the associated price increases could lead to famine in these countries. As "The Conversation" writes, authoritarian rulers, wars and price increases are the main causes of many famines.


Dictatorship and war – a toxic mix

Often, there are several factors that lead to a famine in combination. In Europe, in the 20th century, it was primarily war that was the main cause of hunger. But even the inhuman political programs of dictatorships led to millions of starvation deaths. One of the worst examples in the European context is the famine in Ukraine in 1931-33.

The Stalinist forced collectivization of agriculture led to a drastic decline in agricultural production. At the same time, cereals were exported on a large scale in order to finance the planned industrialization. Farmers who opposed forced collectivization were deported or murdered. An estimated three million people starved to death in Ukraine alone. Six to eight million people starved across the territory of the Soviet Union.

War also led to famine in Germany during the first World War. Because a large share of the nitrogen was put into the production of ammunition, there was a shortage of fertilizers. The recruitment of young soldiers for the war also led to the lack of labor in the country for food production. Imports were hardly possible at the time. Together with the Spanish flu, these developments ended in catastrophic conditions. Around 700,000 people died of hunger in Germany during the first World War. Most of them were among the poorest sections of the country.


Take into account the economic dimension and own security of supply

The poorest of the poor are, in principle, the first to be affected by famine. In his work, the Nobel Laureate for Economics, Amartya Sen, showed that hunger also has a large economic dimension. In this way, famine can also occur in a country, even if there is sufficient food objectively. One of the reasons is the price increase for foods that hit the poor the hardest. Sen sees food price increases as one of the main reasons for the famine in Bengal in 1943, during which two to four million people died.

The causes of price increases are often due to regional failures and the associated shortage of supply on the world market.

The best way to counter this would be to increase production in other parts of the world. For example, imports of cereals from the United States helped to alleviate some of the shortage caused by the failure of potatoes in Ireland in the 1840s (while many people also emigrated in the other direction). Among the countries worst affected by food inflation are Egypt, Syria and Afghanistan. These countries must be given priority support so that they can increase their production themselves. In the long term, this means less need for aid, less human suffering and better opportunities for farmers in less developed economies to benefit from a rich harvest themselves. Plans in Egypt to open up new areas in the desert are likely to be forced with the war in Ukraine. The country receives 80 percent of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia.


Sowing needs confidence and resilience

Isolated crop failures can be compensated for by food imports. However, this requires that food is plentiful elsewhere and that transport and infrastructure remain intact. The fact that Ukraine is usually the source of abundant food to feed the world's hungry makes this situation particularly difficult. Ultimately, however, peace and democracy seem to be the greatest guarantee of food security. Because uncertainty is poison – especially in agriculture, where it takes months of field work before the crops can be harvested. Many farmers in Ukraine are wondering whether sowing is worthwhile if it is not certain whether it can be harvested and exported.

But the risk of future famine also depends on how the world adapts to climate change. The authors in "The Conversation" conclude: Our success in meeting the first serious global food security challenge of the 21st century will show how well we are prepared to deal with several disasters in the future. We cannot prepare for a crisis in isolation. We need to think about how crises work together.

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