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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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Famine occurs when food runs out, causing hunger, malnutrition, and ultimately death. It is an extreme, rather than endemic condition. Were it endemic the victims would either die or make other arrangements regarding their food supply. Of course, some groups live at a lower nutritional level than others, with tremendous consequences on their life expectancy, stature, and general condition, but to call their state one of famine would alter the meaning of the word. There are many different reasons for famine. The most obvious cause may be harvest failure, from tempest, pestilence, war, or civil disturbance. But the model that has preoccupied us the most has been the view of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) that population rises until it consumes all available food precipitating some form of radical change, be it apocalyptic or the invention of new techniques for food production. On closer inspection, historians have not always been able to correlate grain prices and the rise and fall of population as Malthus predicted. Famine may be unrelated to absolute dearth, for it can also result from a failure to distribute food equitably or efficiently: a very modern dilemma, although the ‘Green Revolution’ has certainly reduced the number of deaths from starvation. Ireland in the 19th century offers an earlier parallel: it was a country of great agricultural wealth but most of its produce was exported. The indigenous poor were unable to buy their way into this market and survived on the potato, with appalling consequences (see ireland and the potato). Famine may also be the result of inhibitions arising from food taboos. The medieval Norse colonies in Greenland seem to have died from starvation even while their inuit neighbours were surviving very satisfactorily. The Irish failed to exploit the molluscs on their shores even as they suffered terrible privations in 1845. Famine or the lack of sufficient food has long been a significant factor in human affairs. It has been the cause of the migration of peoples, whether the Vikings of early medieval Europe or the successive waves of European migrants reaching modern America. It has provoked war and revolutions (though its part in the French Revolution can be exaggerated) and it may trigger untoward changes in personal conduct (cannibalism, to cite the most extreme; general irritability and incapacity for measured action as a general rule) as well as diverting its victims from normal outcomes in health, life expectancy, and physical development. Famine has obvious consequences on what we eat. New foods are explored to compensate for crop failure. The governor of Fujian in southern China caused the sweet potato to be imported in 1593. maize and the yam were proposed to the Irish in place of the potato. Pasta and bread were promoted in japan after a series of rice crop disasters in the 19th century. rice was distributed to the hungry in Périgord in 1747 and 1778 but was not received with enthusiasm. (One of the dangers of suggesting new foods was that they were tainted, in the eyes of the hungry, with the image of the misery they were meant to relieve.) And then there are the foods that are only resorted to in times of dearth, in happier days being left to livestock: the young shoots of common bracken (see ferns), bearberry, hawthorn berries, horse chestnuts, beech nuts, tulip bulbs, the palmyra palm, and the acorn are instances, but there are whole ranges of emergency plant foods in Africa and other zones where famine is an ever-present danger. Indeed, the extremes to which people will go in search of a meal know few bounds. It is in such times that geophagy or earth-eating gains in importance, either because it gives a feeling of satiety in the absence of real food, or because it counteracts the toxicity of foods that would otherwise have been ignored.