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📰 On Famines: why and how they happen. To who?

Agrarian societies experience famine for a variety of reasons, including poor governance, war, and weather.

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

5 min read.
📰 On Famines: why and how they happen. To who?

Awhile back, Bret Devereaux wrote a really great article series about how ancient armies handled logistics, and in it he made the point that most of them feed themselves at the expense of local populations. I hadn't realized quite how damaging the "foraging" of ancient armies could be to local farmers, and further, I somehow hadn't connected the idea of "famine" to being something that could be caused by humans.

Mostly because I never thought about it much -- it just doesn't come up much except in fantasy fiction, and even there it's usually a throwaway line meant to castigate a bad monarch or provide background stressors for a plucky protagonist.

Given that context, I tended to think of famine as the sort of thing that comes from bad weather, blights, and the like. Certainly bad leadership could make one worse -- preserving, stockpiling, and redistributing food is a key function of government -- but I hadn't really connected war with famine before this article. It makes sense now that he mentioned it, though, and I wanted to learn more, so I did a little more digging and learned a ton of things that were super relevant for a book idea I've been noodling on for a long time, about surviving in on a pristine planet no one expected to get stuck on.

Who experiences famines?

First things first, I want to address another misapprehension I had for most of my early adulthood; the idea that agrarian societies experience more stable food supplies than hunter-gatherers. Growing up I thought that the whole point of agriculture was the food surpluses, that hunter-gatherers led very hand-to-mouth hardscrabble lives. I thought agriculture made people less likely to experience famine.

Turns out this is false, at least according to the studies I've read. In 2014, J. Colette Berbesque, Frank W. Marlowe, Peter Shaw & Peter Thompson published a great paper called Hunter–gatherers Have Less Famine Than Agriculturalists, which explains that even though most of our literature says our pre-agricultural ancestors experienced "feast or famine" conditions, nobody actually went out and studied that assumption until recently... and that famines are really rare in hunter-gatherer societies. Particularly hunter-gatherer societies that inhabit decent habitats; i.e. we probably shouldn't base our understanding of how well hunter-gatherers on the Italian peninsula managed on desert-dwellers or folks scraping by in the Arctic.

The study was focused on figuring out why a Western diet increases obesity levels and investigating the so-called thrifty genotype, and why periodic fasting probably is not actually mimicking the lifestyles of our early human ancestors. It also touched on some interesting cultural adaptations to marginal habitats. But my big takeaway was that among hunter-gatherers, there's pretty good data that famine is more common in bad climate -- and that in general, hunter-gatherers experience less famine than similarly-situated environments.

Part of this, I think, is that hunter-gatherers tend to be more flexible. If there's a flood, generally they can leave. If locusts destroy all the local grasses, they will switch from eating wild grain and start eating, well, locusts. It also helps that foragers tend to live in much smaller groups; population density is the real advantage of agriculture, because the carrying capacity of cultivated land is higher, but also when things go wrong they go really wrong, in ways that are harder to recover from because there are so many more people requiring so many more resources. Plus, sometimes the choices made to support agriculture (e.g. pesticides) make it hard to pivot to other methods of getting food (e.g. eating locusts, which might be covered in pesticides and thus become poisonous).

Whereas if an army takes a year's worth of grain supply from a wheat farmer who is supporting a family of ten children, they're kind of screwed in a way that the hunter-gatherer supporting a family of two just isn't when faced with an army. Of course, the tradeoff is that agrarian folks can support larger families and are more efficient at collecting calories; but it's much more of that "feast or famine" cycle. It's just that over time the numbers skew toward "feast."

But the thing about agriculture is that it often leads to "civilization," which is to say social hierarchy -- which is to say a bunch of people whose jobs aren't "making food happen" and also, well, government. It's generally not the farmers keeping their agricultural surplus; it's the government, be it a military monarchy or a temple priesthood or however that manifests. Leaving aside questions of whether war is more common in foraging societies than herding or farming socieites, the upshot of this is that peasants -- the ones actually creating the food surplus -- are, counterintuitively, often the worst impacted by famines.

Although it turns out growing potatoes instead of wheat is a great way to avoid the worst of it, because they're easier to hide, harder for large masses of armies to destroy, and harder to tax. They're great... at least until there's a blight.

Peasants, mostly.

Let's take Ethiopia as an example. The ~1984 Ethiopian famine is horrifying and fascinating for a variety of reasons. Almost half a million people died, thanks to a nasty combination of corrupt governance and natural factors. The vast majority of the nation's population are subsistence farmers who either grow crops or raise livestock. There are two rainy seasons: the belg(February-May) and Meher(June to September). The main harvest occurs in November.

But what happens to the harvest, if peasants aren't hanging onto their food surplus? Well, some of it goes to taxes (of course), but a lot of it gets sold at market, the surplus getting turned into money -- which can (theoretically) be used to later purchase food at need, reducing the (non-trivial!) cost of storage.

Storage is hard and risky -- remember that time that oil prices tanked so hard it was worth negative dollars thanks to the cost to ship and store it? With grain and meat, you have to worry about spoilage, space, risk of theft, etc. Money is generally easier to protect, being relatively uninteresting to mice and having reasonably low mass.

But if taxes are too high, or there's a bunch of starving ex-soldiers with nothing to farm, or there's a nasty drought, or prices go up because of regional instability, or wealthy folks drive up the prices by buying a ton of food they don't actually need because they're worried, or trading is restricted, or the institutions tasked with holding onto surpluses so they can redistribute them in times to need fail to do so...

or some combination of all of the above...

there's going to be a crisis.

That said, early famines predate currency, and at least one example is probably responsible for my current love of cheese. Since I've gotten pregnant I've been craving really intense amounts of dairy -- so much pizza! so much milk! -- and I speculate it's because my body is plowing through calcium like nobody's business right now. But for a long time, pregnant folks couldn't get calcium thru dairy, because for most of human history, adults couldn't process lactose. In fact, a big chunk of the modern human population is lactose intolerant. Scientists thought that lactose tolerance spread throughout (mostly European and Middle Eastern) populations because it was a straightforward advantage -- milk = better nutrition = more kids. But it turns out that the spread of lactose tolerance genes was more than just a question of a small advantage spreading normally throughout populations; a new study suggests that famine and disease correlate to huge jumps in the prevalence of lactose persistence, probably because malnourishment compounds the effects of lactose intolerance when drinking milk in times of desperation, driving death in people who can't handle milk or cheese when nutrients from milk and cheese is the difference between life and death.

Further Reading

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