History of the Food Crisis
Oatmeal. Again. But Iryna was not going to complain; she was lucky to have anything to eat, even it were oatmeal, at a time like these. She knew Papa worked hard tending the fields for her to be able to eat three meals a day. Iryna sat down beside her papa, made polite comments about the beautiful morning, and picked up the heavy spoon to feed herself a scoop of the distasteful gruel. But before she could bring the spoonful to her mouth, there was a loud knock at the door. Looking up, Iryna’s papa also seemed perplexed by the mysterious knocks. Then slowly, he got up from his chair and made a few smooth strides toward the window. What he saw sent him into a state of flurry. “Iryna! Quick! Go to the bedroom, hide in the closet! And remember, whatever you do, do not come out until I tell you to!” yelled her Papa. “But why?” Iryna asked, now terrified. “Why? What’s going on?” “There’s no time to explain, Iryna! Just hurry!” Papa pulled her to his side and hugged her for the last time. “Now go!” Iryna did as she was told and ran to the bedroom to hide. Then, for the next 10 seconds, she held her breath and listened. She heard two men walking into her living room. She heard them asking her papa for the food he owed the government and Papa calmly replying that he had nothing to give. She heard yelling, swearing, and fighting. Then, she heard a gunshot.
Throughout history, there have always been severe food shortages and famines all over the world. They each have different causes, ranging from overpopulation to bad weather to government blunders. As the saying goes, “History repeats itself,” so let us learn more about the past crises, their causes, and their solutions, in order to learn more about today’s global food crisis.
The Great Famine
Running Its Course
From 1315 to 1317, medieval Europe suffered a disaster that left indelible scars on its people, the Great Famine. One of the most devastating and catastrophic famines to ever occur throughout human history, the Great Famine struck largely as a result of Mother Nature’s “benedictions”. However, at that time, the exponential population growth also became a contributing factor to the disaster as population reached the height where only optimal utilization of land could ensure that no one would go hungry.
The beginning of the Great Famine in 1315 was marked by heavy, drenching rains that made cultivation and plowing impossible. Due to the inability to grow crops, the harvest for that year was remarkably low. Many families thus turned to their food stores and reserves for sustenance during this period. Unfortunately, their stores quickly ran out of food. By 1316, this very unfavorable weather and shortage of food had not ended. The spring and summer of that year were again both wet and cold. The already unfruitful harvest decreased in amount again that year, and food shortages became even more severe. By 1317, the famine was at its peak. Animals usually used for plowing were slaughtered to feed the starving citizens. Young children were abandoned by parents who were desperate and hungry. The elderly starved themselves to death to save more food for the younger generations. Worst of all, cases of cannibalism were even suspected. However, it is important to note that many who died during the Great Famine did not die because of starvation, but rather because of the diseases and illnesses they obtained from malnutrition and low immunity.
Fortunately, by the summer of 1317, the weather had returned to normal and crops could be grown again. However, staple food like grain that were usually preserved had been eaten during the famine and survivors were too weak to work. At the same time, 10-15% of the entire European population had died from illnesses such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and tuberculosis during the famine. As a result, it was not until almost another decade that Europe fully recovered from this tragedy.
The Ukraine Famine
A Forgotten Story
The Ukraine Famine, one of the sadly forgotten atrocities and genocidal slaughters of World War II, daunted the lives of millions from 1932-1933. It has been estimated that in just one year, over seven million people, 25% of the entire Ukrainian population, died from malnutrition and starvation.
There is a reason why the Ukrainian Famine is considered an atrocity rather than an unfortunate disaster. Unlike other famines, the Ukrainian Famine was “man-made” –instigated not by nature, but by humans. Stalin initiated certain events in order to suppress people who wanted to gain independence in Ukraine, for this burgeoning nationalism in Ukrainians threatened the ultimate success of Communism. In an attempt to achieve this goal, Stalin raised the grain quota, which eventually led to forced collectivization. In the year of 1932, Ukraine’s grain procurement quota was raised by an entire 44% by Stalin. One Moscow agent, Hatayevich, one of the 100,000 men selected by the Central Committee of the Party to help collectivization, said: "... I’m not sure that you understand what has been happening. A ruthless struggle is going on between the peasantry and our regime. It’s a struggle to the death. This year (1933) was a test of our strength and their endurance. It took a famine to show them who is master here. It has cost millions of lives, but the collective farm system is here to stay, We’ve won the war."
Before the Storm
Before the famine, Ukraine had been under the control of Russian czars for over two centuries before the Russian czar rule collapsed on March of 1917. Ukrainians saw the collapse as an opportunity to gain the independence that they had long yearned for and, thus, declared themselves a People’s Republic. Unfortunately for them, by the end of 1917, Vladimir Lenin rose to power as the first leader of the Soviet Union. His goal was to reclaim all the lands that were once under the rule of the Russian czars and Ukraine, fertile and arable, fell into this category. Four years of war, chaos and turmoil followed as loyal Ukrainian soldiers opposed Lenin’s Red Army but to no avail. By 1921, the Ukraine had been defeated and fell once again under the control of the Soviet Union. A highly productive country, Ukraine was forced to ship large amounts of its harvest to feed Russia’s hungry people. However, to their dismay, a drought occurred at the same time, heightening the possibility of a famine and increasing the discontentment Ukrainians felt against the Russians. Lenin decided to moderate such feelings by loosening his “iron fist” over the country. However, this action rekindled many Ukrainians’ desire for independence. After Lenin died in 1924, Stalin, who succeeded him, found the lax hold over the Ukrainians to be largely unacceptable. He was determined to kill all hopes of Ukraine becoming an independent nation as well as to establish a firm communist rule over the country. In the following years, Stalin did all he could to achieve this goal, arresting intellectuals and imposing forced collectivization, which was essentially the main cause of the Ukraine Famine.
During this period of forced collectivization, Stalin seized all privately owned farmland, livestock and crops, proclaiming them to be owned by the government. The wealthier farmers in Ukraine, known as “Kulaks”, were then seen as “enemies of the people”. Stalin stripped Kulaks of all their possessions and property, believing that they could prompt the undermining of the collectivization system. Aiding disowned Kulaks also became illegal and many disowned Kulaks were left to die in the wilderness or be shipped off as slaves for Soviet projects. Rebellions took place as farmers strongly resisted these edicts. They took back their own property, possessions, and livestock, murdered Soviet authorities, and refused to work altogether. However, by 1932, around 75% of the originally privately owned farms had been collectivized. Quotas were increased every few months and, by 1933, there was no longer enough food to feed the Ukrainians. Meanwhile, the enormous profits that were made through the sale of Ukrainian crops were used to fund Stalin’s Five Year Plan of modernization. Since then, it has been estimated that if the crops that were sold to other countries had instead been used to feed Ukraine, there would have been enough food to support the entire population for two years.
People soon began to starve to death because food aid was impossible. This was not an accident though. Moscow had sent Russian soldiers to seal the borders of Ukraine to ensure that no food aid entered the country. Desperate from hunger, people began to eat cats, birds, rats, and frogs that they could catch. There have even been reports that some parents even resorted to eating their very own children in attempt to survive. At the height of the famine in 1933, it was estimated that almost 25,000 people died a day. However, through all of this, the Soviet authority did everything in its power to conceal what was happening in Ukraine. Western countries did not question Stalin either as they were afraid of disrupting their relationship with the Soviet Union, which purchased tremendous amounts of machinery from them. The negligence of the Soviet Union and the greed of the Western countries caused 25% of the Ukrainian population to starve to death by the end of 1933. It was at this time that Stalin, having achieved his goals, finally allowed food to be distributed once again in Ukraine. However, persecution and genocide did not completely end until 1941, when the Nazis invaded Ukraine. The Ukrainians were emancipated from one trauma only to experience an even greater one, World War II.
The Bengal Famine
The Bengal Famine began in the year 1943, the height of World War II, during which the British administered the region. An estimated of 1.5 to 3 million people died due to starvation and malnutrition during this gruesome period.
In 1942, when Bengal was hit by a disastrous cyclone, many of the region’s crops were ruined. At that time, there was already a case of rapid price inflation due to wartime demands. Much of the food produced in Bengal was exported to British and Indian troops over in the Middle East, even though there was not enough food inside the country. To make matters worse, merchants would often hoard food, hoping that prices would rise and their profits would increase. People suffered from these high prices, for although there was enough food to feed everyone, poverty prevented anyone from obtaining it. Due to its preoccupation with the ongoing war, Britain could not respond immediately to the desperate need of food in Bengal. Higher priority was given to the British than to the Indians. Even as Bengalines pleaded with the British for help, their cries were ignored, as Britain placed guns before grain. Furthermore, the government in the area did nothing to aid the food crisis. They refused to ban exports and made no attempts to import food from elsewhere.
Despite the catastrophe that had taken place, the famine was quickly forgotten by people after the war as Britain vehemently denied the existence of such a famine. Starvation ended eventually after Britain supplied an emergency 1 million tons of grain to Bengal that brought prices back to normal and gave the people ability to purchase food once again.
The Great Chinese Famine
Too Fast, Too Furious
The Great Chinese Famine, which lasted from 1958 to 1961, is currently officially known as the Three Years of Natural Disasters. In the year of 1957, Chairman Mao actively encouraged economic developments and industrial developments, especially in steel production. In short, China wanted to achieve what Britain had achieved in steel production by the end of 15 years. Thus, citizens were forced to work in cooperatives, or collective farms while the government tried to achieve the unrealistic goal of setting up establishments that would allow people to eat free of charge. During this period, much debt was accumulated due to the enormous amounts the government had spent on heavy industry. By 1959, grain reserves had been used up and the Three Years of Natural Disasters were taking their toll.
In the Face of Hunger
The Yellow River, China’s most vital asset for agriculture, flooded eastern China in July 1959. This and other abnormal weather conditions such as the drought in 1960 coincided with the flawed government policies, which eventually brought about famine to the people of China. An estimated 14-26 million people died during these three years, while 21-34 million fewer births were conceived as compared to previous years. At the same time, the Chinese government neglected the agricultural sector and reported false numbers about the amount of crops produced. The government, which did not care enough about the actual output numbers, made up ideal figures to create the illusion that all was going well when in reality, it could not have been any worse. While 190 to 200 million tons of grain could be produced annually under normal weather conditions, only 170 million tons were produced in 1959, while less than 150 million tons were produced in 1960 and 1961. The average national grain output per person was 308 kg in 1956 and 1957, but in 1959 and 1960 the number fell by 17% and 30% respectively.
I went to one village and saw 100 corpses, then another village and another 100 corpses. No one paid attention to them. People said that dogs were eating the bodies. “Not true,” I said. “The dogs had long ago been eaten by the people.” This is what Yu Dehong, a secretary of a party official in Xinyang in 1959 and 1960, observed during the famine. Although the exact number of deaths is still disputed today, the severity of the Great Chinese Famine and its ramifications remain as incontrovertible as ever.
The North Korean Famine
A Decade of Crisis
Beginning in 1995, peaking in 1997, and raging on today, the North Korean Famine has already taken up to three million lives. This dire famine is a result of many events, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, five years of intense flooding, and inefficient production of food.
When China and the USSR withdrew food subsidies in the 1990s, the overall supply of food dropped dramatically. Due to the sudden scarcity of food, there was a sharp rise in demand which, in result, led to an increase in price. Consequently, authorities lowered grain ratios for farm families from 167 kg per person per year to 107 kg. Although there was international food aid throughout the mid-1990s, the timing of such aid did not coincide with the climax of the famine. In addition, internally, the government was clueless on how to deal with the crisis. During this time, death rates increased, birth rates dropped and household sizes shrunk. Finally, conditions became so unbearable that refugees began to flee from North Korea to China.
A Nation of Hunger
The Chinese Great Famine and the North Korean Famine are very similar in that both governments were aiming to transform an agricultural economy into an industrial one. Both governments also refused to admit that all was not going as they had planned, for by the peak of the North Korean Famine in 1997, 16.5% of children were wasted, 38.2% of children were stunted and around 600,000 to 1 million people had died. Since 1995, North Korea has become increasingly dependent on international food aid to provide sustenance for 23 million people. The amount of international aid however has since decreased due to the continuing nuclear program of the country. As a result, many parts of North Korea, excluding Pyongyang, are still experiencing a constant shortage of food.
Now, sure that the men were gone, Iryna ventured out of the closet. She cautiously made her way out the bedroom door and into the living room. “Papa?” she whispered. “Papa?” Then she saw him. He was lying on the ground near the table, face down, a small pool of dark red liquid enveloping him. Iryna closed her eyes, unable to believe what she saw. When she opened them, she saw Papa still there, still dead. She saw the oatmeal, still there, still cold and untouched.