Since the 19th century, global nutrition levels have increased and malnutrition is on the wane. We have never had access to so many calories from so many different goods available to so many people at such low prices. The threat of famines has thus, unsurprisingly, faded. In the 1870s, some 142 people per 100,000 died due to famines. In the decade that just ended, that number stood at … 0.5 per 100,000 – a 99% reduction.
Yet, there is a paradox. It is in the period of rising nutritional levels that we observe the worst famines in human history. Indeed, prior to the 20th century, most famines caused by natural factors (e.g. climate, disease) were not exactly extreme events as those that generally come to mind such as the Holodomor in the Ukraine during the 1930s or the Great Famine in China during the 1950s and 1960s. These pre-20th century famines were more like periods of dearth with severe malnutrition. True, there were horrible episodes caused by natural events such as the Great Irish Famine, but this was an exception more than a rule.
The reason for this distinction is that famines and dearth of food caused by natural events have indeed waned heavily. No market economy with a liberal democracy suffered through a famine during the 20th century. However, famines produced out of human design increased considerably. The ten worst famines of the 20th century could all be attributed directly (e.g. the Holodomor) or indirectly (e.g. wars) to government policies. And these ten worst famines are amongst the worst famines in all of humanity’s history.
However, one should notice that I just distinguished between “directly” and “indirectly.” That distinction is important because it points to the obvious fact that these famines were never monocausal. As such, there are always debates about these extreme famines: was the famine started by a drought; was the famine started by government policy, were the famine deaths due to governments failing to provide relief? Disentangling these finer threads is a very daunting task.
Fortunately, recent work by Natalya Naumenko in the Journal of Economic History provides us with such a disentanglement in the case of the Holodomor in the Ukraine during the 1930s.
The Holodomor is ideal for such an effort. First of all, the death toll was horrific: six to eight million died in 1933. Second, many scholars debate whether the famine was precipitated by a drought and whether government policies (such as the collectivization of farms that had started in the 1920s and the banning of private food trading in order to facilitate procurement of wheat by the government for export) made things worse.
To provide the disentanglement, Naumenko collects district-level data about mortality, weather, collectivization, agricultural inputs, ethnic composition and urbanization. Combined with other data sources, she first discredits the idea that droughts had taken place before 1933 in ways that made the local populations vulnerable. The temperatures in those years were roughly similar to previous years even though the months of May and June 1932 were marked by unusually high levels of rainfall.
Then, she attempts to assess the relative contribution in 1933 of the different factors. Variations in climate characteristics are found to pack very little explanatory firepower: they explain less than 10% of the excess mortality in that year. However, the effects of collectivization and government procurements of wheat do provide strong explanatory power: between 52% and 57% of excess mortality is explained by variations in the rate of collectivization of the farm economy across districts.
To tie those facts together, Naumenko then investigates the effect of collectivization on farm output. Unsurprisingly, areas with higher rates of collectivization exhibited smaller sown area per capita. Collectivization was also associated with a drop in livestock per capita. These two mechanisms suggest that there was clearly an institutional root to the famine. As Naumenko summarizes succinctly, it is necessary to “put the blame where it belongs:” at the feet of “government policies that make the food supply susceptible to disaster when environmental conditions are less than perfect.”
This work of economic history is not just worth reading because of its well-executed nature. It is worth reading because it is a potent reminder of how governments can fuel some of the worst disasters in human history.
Vincent Geloso is a visiting assistant professor of economics at Bates College. He obtained a PhD in Economic History from the London School of Economics.