Fearfull Famines of the Past

by Eduardo Ferreyra
President of FAEC

This is the title of an excellent article published in the National Geographic Maga-zine that fell on my hands recently. It gives an account of the major famines occurred on Earth since the most ancient times, and the horror depicted in the stories would surely shock any reader in the 21st Century. The author points out that almost all dearth and famines in history were the consequences of two, and most times, three factors:

"Grim, gaunt and loathsome, like the fateful sisters of Greek mythology, war, famine, and pestilence, have decreed untimely deaths for the hosts of the earth since the beginning of time. A veritable trinity of evil, the three are as one scourge, equal in their devastating power and their sinister universality."

The article is of great value because it gives the view of the problem as it was seen by the National Geographic Magazine in its July, 1917 issue, amidst First World War, when Kerensky was "Russia's Man of the Hour" (p. 24), letters and news were sent from the Italian Front at the Alps (p. 47), and "The Rat Pest" required "the labour of 200,000 men in the United States to support rats, man's most destructive and dangerous enemy." (p. 1). But it was "Fearful Famines of the Past", (p. 69) the one that impressed me the most, and it really deserves to be analyzed and commented. Ralph Graves, the article author, tells us that:

"A survey of the past shows that war, pestilence and famine always have been related, sometimes one, and sometimes another being the cause, and the other two the effect. Where one of the trio has occurred the others, sometimes singly, but usually together, have followed."

"The primary cause of famine almost invariably has been the failure of food crops. This failure has often resulted from a variety of natural causes – long-continued drought, blasting hot winds, insect armies, earthquakes, severe and untimely frosts, and destructive inundations."

So we can see that causes producing crop failure have existed since the dawn of times, and they were not the consequence of a supposed warming caused by the emission of greenhouse gases produced by man's activities. Of course, this article was published long before the National Geographic Magazine had embraced the Green Holy Crusade of ultra-environmentalism and hatred for technology and development. Graves keeps saying:

Locusts were the most common plague de-cimating Egypt's crops almost every year.

Famines were usually many years long, six to ten years was quite normal, and the death toll was huge. In all, ten famines are recorded in the Bible, one of them – a ten year long famine which drove Naomi and her husband out of the land of Judah into the country of the Moabites. Two other biblical famines are noteworthy as preludes to the depravity to which hunger brought mankind in succeeding generations. The first authentic record of cannibalism as a result of famine is found in the sacred recital of the siege of Samaria by Ben-Hadad, King of Syria, in the ninth century before the dawn of the Christian era"

It tells about how the King of Israel was asked by a woman to give his son to be eaten, and she would give her son the next day. The next day after the king's son had been eaten by the people, the King found that the woman had hid her son.

After hundred years of the Samarian famine, Rome's dawn upon the horizon was signalized, according to Plutarch, by a frightful pesti-lence and famine. "Blood or crimson-colored insects fell from the clouds; disease, starvation, and the sword ravaged all Campania."

"A peculiar feature of the famine and pestilence which visited the Roman province of Apulia about 188 AD was the amazing swarm of locusts which filled the air and covered the ground. Sicinius was dispatched with an army to try to battle with the winged pests. Thousand of peasants lay down to die on the highroads, and so dire was the pestilence which accompanied the famine that even the vultures refused to feed upon the fallen."

This scourge of starvation and pestilence extended as far west as England. During a brief period 5,000 people died daily in Rome, where the only method of combating disease was the practice of "filling noses and ears with sweet-smelling ointments to keep out the contagion."

It is not improbable that the suffering of this time was a "flareback" from the pestilence of 166 AD, which had been borne to Rome from Arabia, where, according to Ammianus Marcellinus, it had emanated from the foul air which escaped from "a small box opened by a Roman soldier, Pandora like, at the capture of Seleucia." Not only did famine and pestilence spread from Arabia to the banks of the Rhine, but also "inundations, caterpillars, vapours, and insects," leaving in their wake decayed and deserted villages throughout Gaul.

Egyptian Famines Under Mohammedan Rule

Graves gives a dispassionate account of the terrible suffering that people had to bear in those days. "Probably in no other country in the world has a people been brought to such a low ebb of morality or become so completely lost to all semblance of rational humanity as in the series of famines which swept over Egypt during the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, under Mohammedan rule."

"A low Nile in 967 AD resulted in a famine the following year, which swept away 500,000 people in the vicinity of the city of Fustat. In taking steps to mitigate the suffering of the Egyptians the Mohammedan viceroy was far in advance of the European rulers of his day, but in allowing the natives to cast their thousands of unburied dead into the Nile, thereby tainting the waters all the way to the sea, he failed to evince any glimmer of understanding of the laws of sanitation."… "There was no G'awhar to conduct the relief work during the next Egyptian famine, which came in 1025, during Caliphate of Zahir. The suffering, therefore, was much more wide-spread."

A terrible attachment to famines and dearth was the advent of a strong rebellion spirit among the people, and many revolts occurred against the authorities.

"The stronger among the population turned brigand and began to prey upon the weaker members of the society. Caravans and pilgrims were attacked by Syrians bands began to invade border towns." … "slaves began to rise in revolt in all parts of the country and it became necessary for citizens to organize committees of safety for self-protection, the government granting permits to kill the bondmen. With an ample Nile in 1027, however, the period of suffering came to an end."

Can you image how life was in those days? Can you make a comparison with present days? In those times, people didn't have then any means to prevent this kind of events, or take any action once the absence of flooding caused the failure of successive crops and the onset of terrible and inevitable famines. Things were not easy at all in those "golden days of yesteryear", making us think that "past times were always better" is something that only idiots can believe – or repeat.

"A third and far more terrible famine came in 1064 and, like that which affected the land in the days of Teheser and Joseph, lasted for seven fearful years. … Prices soared to heights never before reached in the near East. Cats and dogs brought fabulous prices, and women, unable to purchase food with their pearls and emeralds, flung their useless jewels into the streets."; Human Flesh Sold in Open Market

"Rich and poor suffered on equal terms. Finally the desperate people resorted to revolting cannibalism. Human flesh, which was sold in the open market, was obtained in the most horrible manner. Butchers concealed themselves behind latticed windows in the upper stories of houses which looked out upon busy thoroughfares. Letting down ropes to which were attached great meat hooks, these anglers for human flesh snared the unwary pedes-trians, drew their shrieking victims through the air, and then prepared and cooked the food before presenting it for sale in the stalls on the street level."
This seven years' reversion to savagery induced by starvation had its companion period of suffering and degradation in the same country during the years 1201 and 1202. Whole quarters and villages became deserted during the famine which followed the low Nile of 1200 and 1201, according to chroniclers, who maintain that the starving populace ate human flesh habitually. "True, the punishment meted out to those detected in the crime was death at the stake, but few criminals were caught, and the custom could be practiced with impunity by parents who subsisted on their own children." … "The very graves of Egypt were ransacked for food. The roads became death traps, while flocks of vultures and packs of hyenas and jackals mapped the march of the cannibal outlaws. Of course the piles of unburied dead bred pestilence of a virulent type." And to think that there are people who panic when somebody tells them there is a near electric transformer sweating some PCBs!

Famines in England

The story of famines in England has been a gloomy one from earliest times. At the beginning of the eight century a dearth, which extended to Ireland drove men to cannibalism. It was not until the reign of Aethelred the Unready, however, that "such a famine prevailed as no man can remember," from 1005 to 1016. Chroniclers say that half the population of the larger island perished, although many of the dead were caused by the wars between Aethelred and Sweyn the Dane, the latter being force by the famine to retire from England for a time.

During the last 30 years of the 11th century, nine were years of dire distress. "So great was the dearth in 1069 that the peasant of the north, unable longer to secure dogs and horses to appease their hunger, sold themselves into slavery in order to be fed by their masters. All the land between Durham and York lay waste, without inhabitants or people to till the soil for nine years, says Beverly, and another writer accused the destitute of canni-balism." There were sporadic periods of suffering during the succeeding reigns of William Rufus and Henry I, in the civil wars of Stephen's times, and under Henry II. But the next dearth which attracts the sympathy was the one which befell the people in the days of Richard Coeur de Lion, the Crusader. Starvation was followed by a pestilential fever which sprang "as if from the corpses of the famished." Ceremonial burial was omitted except in the case of the very rich, and in populous places the victims were interred in shallow trenches – a practice followed at a later period when the Black Death killed millions. "Few English kings have lived through greater period of distress than Edward II, who was scarcely able to secure food for his own immediate household when the heavy rains of 1314 spoiled the harvests. Misery was widespread and intense: the dead lined the roadsides; everything imaginable was eaten – dogs, horses, cats, even babies. The jails were crowded with felons, and when a new criminal was thrown into a cell he was seized upon by the starving inmates and literally thorn to pieces for food."

"With the exception of the present world war (1914-1918), perhaps no other calamity that ever befell the human race can be compared with that of the Black Death and the accompanying famine, which afflicted all western civilization during the middle decade of the 14th century. Its toll has been variously estimated at from one-fourth to three-forth of the entire population of Europe. Certainly it was not less than 25,000,000 people.
The Black Death in England "In August, 1348, England's first Black Death victim succumbed in Dorsetshire. By November it had reached London. By the summer of 1349 it had dragged its pall of putrefaction over the entire island, including Scotland. Norwich, which had been the second city of the kingdom, dropped to sixth in size; more than two-thirds of its population falling victims of the scourge."

Cultivation of the fields was utterly impossible, and there were not even enough able-bodied labourers to gather the crops which had matured. Cattle roamed through the corn unmolested and the harvest rotted where it stood. Out of the situation which resulted from the impoverishment of the labour resources of the kingdom grew the first great clash in England between capital and labour. The peasants became masters of the situation. In some instances they demanded double wages, and whereas formerly land/owners had paid one-twelfth of every quarter of wheat as the harvesting wage, they were now forced to pay one-eight.

Famines in France

No country in Europe suffered more from famine between the eight century and the close of the eighteenth than France. The failure of crops from natural causes entailed far fewer hardships, however, than the gross injustice of the country's kings and courtiers.

"From 750 to the French Revolution, the land scarcely recovered from one period of dearth before some untoward event plunged into new woes. From 987 to 1059, during the early stages of feudalism, forty-eight famines devastated the peasantry – an average of a famine every 18 months. The miseries of mankind in Gaul at that time were incredible. The whole course of nature seemed to be upset, and there was intense cold in summer, oppressive heat in winter. Rain and frosts came out of season, and for three years (1030 to 1032), there was neither seed time nor harvest." Although France suffered greatly from famine and pestilence during the Crusades, the most spectacular instances of privation occurred among her armies in Palestine and Egypt, rather than at home. During the first crusade, plague, supplemented by famine, destroyed 100,000 men women and children between September and December of the year 1097.

Ireland's Many Famine Woes

Ireland has been a land of many woes, and not the least of these has been the famines which from time to time have taken such heavy toll of the island's population. As early as 963-964, an intolerable famine visited the country, and parents are said to have sold their children in order to get money with which to buy food. On at least three occasions the peasantry has been driven to cannibalism.

The famine of 1822 was but a prelude to the de-solation which swept over the island in 1845-1846. The earlier failure of the potato crop should have forewarned the people of the disas-ter which they were constantly inviting, and many reformers preached for years against the practice of neglecting the cultivation of all grains in favour of the American tuber. In 1845 a pesti-lential blight of unexampled severity caused the whole potato crop to rot. Three-fourths of the population of the island was entirely dependent of upon this staple for food at that time. The resulting suffering can scarcely be imagined.

"In March and April 1847, 2,500 died weekly in the workhouses alone. Thousands of star-ving peasants poured into England, many dying of famine fever while on board of emigrant ships. The total death toll was between 200,000 and 300,000. Owing to death and emigration, the population of the island was reduced from 8,300,000 in 1845 to 6,600,000 six years later, and has been declining steadily ever since, until today it is about 4,300,000."

Famine's Terrible Toll in India

There are records of whole provinces being depopulated as early as 1022 and 1052 AD, while at about the time the Black Death was making its appearances in Europe, a famine of such severity swept over Hindustan that the Mogul emperor himself was unable to obtain the necessaries for his household.

In 1630 a devastating drought afflicted the province of Gujarat and whole centers were depopulated. Unlike the famines in other countries where there is frequently a variety of factors contributing to the failure of crops, in India the shortage almost invariably results from an absence of rain. The success of India's crops year to year depends upon two monsoons – the southwest, or the rains, and the north-east, which brings the winter rains.

The first of the Indian famines to attract widespread interest in the western world was the great catas-trophe of 1769-1770, during which it is estimated that a fully 15,000,000 souls, a full third of the population of Bengal, perished. Like all the famines, it resulted from a failure of rain, supplemented by bad administration by the East India Company.

The famines which occurred between 1780 to 1790 are worthy of note because it was during this period that the British began to organize relief for the destitute. In the twenty-two famines which occurred in India between 1770 and 1900, more than 15,000,000 natives perished, and some of the most terrible years – notably the famine in southern India 1876-1878, when 5,200,000 starved to death in British territory alone – have befallen the empire just when the government believed it had almost mastered the problem of relief.

Chinese Famine Which Started the Black Death

China is another land which famine seems to have marked for its own. Here the difficulty is not so much a matter of crop failures as the excess production of the human crop from year to year. Existence is a perpetual struggle for food in the Celestial Empire, and the smallest deviation from a maximum yield destroys the margin of safety between "barely enough" and "starvation".

The four years between 1333 and 1337 were a period of unimagined suffering throughout China, and it is highly probable that it was in this era that the seeds of disaster were sown for Europe's Black Death, which appeared in the following decade. Famine and pestilence laid the whole country waste. Excessive rains caused destructive flooding, and according to Chinese records 4,000,000 people perished from starvation in the neighbourhood of Kiang alone.

Famines in China were a constant scourge during its entire history

The four famines of 1810, 1811, 1846, and 1849 are said to have taken a toll of not less than 45,000,000 lives. In 1875-1878 four provinces in northern China, the district known as the "Garden of China," suffered a failure of crops owing to lack of rain, in an area about the size or France, 9,000,000 people perished.

Two recent period of dearth in China that awakened wide interest and elicited generous contributions from the United States for relief work were the famines of 1906 and 1911, when floods in the Yangtze River basin affected 10,000,000 people residing in an area the size of the State of Kentucky.

Hunger and the Russian Peasant

Next to the proletariat of India and China, the Russian peasant feels the pinch of poverty and hunger more keenly and more frequently than any other citizen on Earth. One of the earliest famines in Russia of which there is any definite record was that of 1600, which continued for three years, with a death toll of 500,000 peasants....

"Cats, dogs, and rats were eaten; the strong overcame the weak, and in the sham-bles of the public markets human flesh was sold. Multitudes of the dead were found with their mouths stuffed with straw."…"Three Russian famines of comparative recent date were among the most severe in the history of the country. They occurred in 1891, 1906, and 1911. In 1906 the government gave 40 pounds of flour a month to all persons under 18 and over 59 years of age. The suffering was intense and the mortality exceedingly heavy, but the available statistics are not wholly reliable. The famine of 1911 extended over one-third of the empire in Europe and affected more than more or less directly 30,000,000 people, while 8,000,000 were reduced to starvation. Weeds, the bark of trees, and bitter bread made from acorns constituted the chief diet for the destitute."

An account of more recent recorded famines presented by the author, Ralph Graves, can be summarized as follows:

79-88 ADRome100,000 (in 1 day)
168Rome5,000 daily
967-972 DCFustat, Egypt500,000
1025-1027 ADCairo, Egyptunknown
1218Damietta, Egypt70,000
1235 London20,000
1333-1337Kian, China4,000,000
1769-1790Bengal, India10,000,000
1810-1811Chinasee below

Ralph Graves ends its 23-page long article saying:

"From this kaleidoscopic picture of suffering undergone during some of the most direful periods of world history it is apparent that there is nothing grandiose or heroic about death from starvation; neither is there glory to be gained, nor medal or honour or military crosses to be won in the battle for food. The casualties in the struggle are enormous, the compensation nil. No monuments are raised to the victims, no pen-sions provided for decrepit survivors. The suffering of those who succumb is pitiful beyond description, and the individual's anguish inevitably is intensified by the nece-ssity of witnessing the agony of his loved ones who perish with him."


So what have we learned from Grave's account of crop and harvest failures, dearth and famines? Scarcity of food and resources was a natural state of society, and if some minimal event ruptured the delicate balance between factors affecting the success of crops, the result was inevitable: famine and death by starvation.

Because man lacked the technological advances of today, he could not produce in big excess for storing the produce for later use. They could barely save some food and grain for the next winter, and that was all he could do. And worse yet, most of the times farmers were ransacked by their masters, their kings, or simply by bands of bandits that found easier to assault and steal than to till the soil and work from dawn to the setting sun for a meagre crop.

What becomes increasingly clear is that scarcity, dearth and famines occur nowadays only in some localized regions in Africa as Ethiopia or Chad, as a consequence of civil wars as it was in Rwanda-Burundi, or in traditionally arid regions in Australia, northeast Brazil, and some small areas in India. These regions also show a lack of investment in infrastructure for irrigation and development. Had all these regions received the investment and the will for transforming the region in fertile lands as they did in Israel, famines would have disappeared long ago from the face of earth.

Which is the present State of Affairs?

Bjorn Lomborg, author of the brilliant book "The Skeptical Environmentalist", has obtained data from official sources in organizations as the World Health Organization, (WHO), the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that makes a point quite clear: the world has more food than ever. Just a few statistics will suffice for clearing out any doubts about the subject.

According to the UN FAO's production Index of 1961-99, we produce 23 percent more food per capita than we did in 1961, and the growth in agricultural crops per person in developing countries has grown by as much as 52 percent. The entire world has grown from 49.8 to 11.6, the developing world as gone from 40.1 to 135.4. Equi-valently, meat by person has grown by 122 percent from 17.2 kg in 1950 to 38.4 2000.

According to data from the World Bank Food Index (IMF 2001a, CPI 2001), in spite of this fantastic increase in demand the price of food fell by more than two-thirds from 1957 to early 2001.

According to Lomborg studies,

"Basically, we now have more food per person than we used to, even the population has doubled since 19561. It can be seen in Figure 23 that our calorie intake has increased by 24% in a global basis, and that developing countries have experienced a dramatic increase of 38%."


According to the UN's definition, "a person is starving if he or she does not get suffi-cient food for perform light physical activity." Figure 24 shows the percentage of people starving in developing countries. Globally, the proportion of people starving has fallen from 35% to 18% and it is expected to fall further to 12% in 2100. This should be compared to an estimated 45% of developing country people starving in 1949."

It is remarkable that the fall in the proportion of people starving in the world should have come at the same time as the population of developing countries doubled. What is more astounding is that the actual number of people starving in the Third World has fallen.

How has this come to happen? Why don't we see nowadays those massive famines of the past? The reason is behind – without any doubt in what is know the Green Revolution.

The Green Revolution

As told by Bjorn Lomborg: "One cannot help asking oneself how development can possibly be so good. The answer is to be found in a number of technologies which are collectively known as The Green Revolution."

The Revolution consisted primarily of:

  1. High yield crops
  2. Irrigation and controlled water supplyv
  3. Fertilizers and pesticides
  4. Farmer's management skills

The secret of the Green Revolution was to get more food out of each and every hectare of soil. The vision was that of Norman Borlaug, who later received the Noble Peace Prize for his work in high-yield varieties of crops. Characteristic of these crops developed by Borlaug in his laboratories in Mexico is that they germinate earlier in the year, grow faster, and are more resistant to disease and drought. They often have shorter stems than the old varieties so that most of the plants' sustenance ends up in the grains.

The fact that the plants germinate earlier and grow more quickly means that in many parts of the world it is possible to harvest two or three crops a year. Rice not longer takes 150 days to mature and many varieties can do it in 90 days. At the same time, it is possible to cultivate crops in large areas where climate conditions are less favourable. For example, modern varieties of corn can be grown in a 800 km wider belt around the world, what as been a boon to countries as Canada, Rusia, Chile, Argentina and China.

Wheat has become resistant to most diseases, such as mildew and rust, which means a lot in developing coun-tries. The new varieties of wheat now account for almost 90% of production in developing countries. Since 1960, the new varieties have led to 30% plus increase in maximum yields and are responsible fro 20-50% of the total increased productivity.

Animals Too

In fact, it is not only varieties of grain that have been improved. Chickens and pigs produce more than twice as much meat as they did 60 years ago and cows produce twice the amount of milk. With genetic enhancement and modern fish farming, the Norwegian salmon has since the early 1970s also become twice as productive.

More Water Available

Irrigation and water control has become more widespread; the proportion of irrigated fields having almost doubled from 10.5% in 1961 to over 18% in 1997. Irrigation renders the soil far more fertile – it has enabled the Egyptians to get almost twice the wheat yield of the average developing country. Irrigation also makes possible to harvest two or three times a year. This is why irrigated land contributes as much as 40% of the Earth food – even though it accounts for only 18% of the total agricultural land mass.

Finally, the increased use of fertilizers and pesticides has made it possible to improve plant growth and not lose such a large proportion of crops to disease and insects. Almost a third of Asian rice harvest was eaten by in-sects in 1960! A last and important help to the battle for feeding the world was the development of GMO, Genetically Modified Organisms, or simply GM plants. They offer greater resistance to disease, and plagues, thereby reducing pesticide consumption, while at the same time having improved uptake of nutrients thus reducing the overapplication of fertilizers.


"The battle to feed mankind is over " … "The food problem in the developing world represents a 'nearly insoluble problem'.", as Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown have been yelling from their Watchtower of Doom since the 60s and 70s. Ehrlich runs down what he calls the "professional optimists". According to Ehrlich, "They say, for instance that agricultural output to feed some 120 million more people than they cannot feed after all feed today. To put such fantasy into perspective we one need to consider only that …" and Ehrlich presen-ted a whole list of reasons why this could not be achieved. And sure enough, the figure of 120 million turned out to be wrong. Eight years later India produced enough food for 144 million more people, according to FAO's data in its agricultural production index. And since the population had grown by "only" 104 million, this meant there was more food to go around and feed another 20 million.

Lester Brown is a remarkable Prophet of Doom, and as all prophets has failed miserably in every one of his prophecies. In 1965 he wrote that "the food problem emerging in the less-developing regions may be one of the most nearly insoluble problems facing man over the next few decades." Both Ehrlich and Brown have been proved mistaken beyond any doubt. Although there are in the world twice as much people than in 1961, every one of us has more to eat, in both developed and developing countries. As Lomborg states: "Fewer people are starving, Food is cheaper these days and food-wise the world is quite simply a better place for more people."

Aren't you happy to be living in this world, just now, in the 21st Century? Or you rather be living in those Golden Days of Yesteryear, when diseases and famines were the norm, and people reaching old age the exception that confirmed the rule?

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