The Devastating Reality of Famines


Famine is one of the things that happen when a human population exceeds its environmental resources. It is one of the most devastating and inhumane disasters to strike humanity. Conditions and events of many sorts can contribute to the development of famine. These include natural disasters (flood, plant disease) and technological failures (unreliable storage, destructive farming practices) as well as various social, economic, and political factors (class inequities, market collapse, war).

Famines have occurred in recent decades in Africa. In the mid- 1970s, following a drought in the Sahel region, 500,000 Africans starved to death and several million more were permanently affected by malnutrition. There were 100,000 starvation-related deaths in the region in 1973 while Overgrazing and the reduction of grass cover or desertification were found to be the most important underlying causes. The construction of boreholes by development agencies to provide water eliminated the incentive for the herds to move on causing pressure upon a smaller piece of land. Starvation in African nations gained worldwide attention some ten years later, in the 1980s. Famine in Africa has had multiple interrelated causes. One, as suggested, is drought. Although drought is not new to Africa, the size of the population affected by drought is new. Also, deserts in Africa appear to be spreading, in part because of changing climate but also because of human activities. Poor farming practices have increased erosion, and deforestation may be helping to make the environment drier. Also, the control and destruction of food have sometimes been used as a weapon in political disruptions.

Population growth beyond society’s means of subsistence is widely regarded as an underlying cause of hunger and famine. The most amazing fact being that it might be THE most important reason for it all. Population pressure has driven the discovery of new food resources. In some cases, it has pushed standards of living upward by driving trade and industrial development. The problem is that population unchecked grows exponentially. The ability to provide food increases linearly. Consequently, unless society institutes preventive checks on growth, by tolerating abortions, starvation and violent efforts to avoid it are inevitable. The temptation to neglect preventive checks is probably the greatest in agricultural societies in which children can perform simple but economically important tasks.

Today, malnutrition contributes to the death of about 6 million children per year. It was recognized as a global crisis way back in the 20th century. Low- and middle-income countries suffer the most from malnutrition, as measured by low weight for age.Famines in Africa showcase another key point. People affect the environment, and the environment affects people. The environment affects agriculture, and agriculture affects the environment. Human population growth in Africa has severely stretched the capacity of the land to provide sufficient food and has threatened its future productivity.

The emerging global food crisis in the first decade of the 21st century has not been caused by war or drought but by rising food costs. The increased standard of living has slowly crept up causing people to be more financially stable. However that means the cost of basic items, such as rice, corn, and wheat, has risen to the point where low and moderate-income countries are experiencing a serious crisis. In 2007 and 2008, food riots occurred in many locations, including Mexico, Haiti, Egypt, Yemen, Bangladesh, India, and Sudan.The rising cost of oil used to produce food (in fertilizer, transportation, working fields) and the conversion of some corn production to biofuels have been blamed.

Since the end of World War II rarely has a year passed without a famine somewhere in the world. Food emergencies affected 34 countries worldwide at the end of the 20th century. Varying weather patterns in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, as well as inadequate international trade in food, contributed to these emergencies. Such a trend is surely alarming, illustrating the gravity of the situation we have on our hands. Examples include famines in Ethiopia (1984–1985), Somalia (1991–1993), and the 1998 crisis in Sudan. As we saw earlier, Africa remains the continent with the acutest food shortages, due to adverse weather and civil strife.

Science is seen as the solution to all great problems currently faced by our planet. A scientific approach as always been appreciated as it works more on facts than on myths and assumptions. Scientific knowledge has led to increased agricultural production and to a better understanding of population growth and what is required to conserve natural resources. With this knowledge, we are forced to confront a choice: Which is more important, the survival of people alive today or conservation of the environment on which future food production and human life depend on? Answering this question demands value judgments and the information and knowledge with which to make such judgments. Hence, we must determine whether we can continue to increase agricultural production without destroying the very environment on which agriculture and, indeed, the persistence of life on Earth depend on. Put another way, a technical, scientific investigation provides a basis for a judgment of values.

The human population continues to grow, but humans’ effects on the environment are growing even faster. We can’t escape this fact no matter how much we try to mend the issues. People cannot escape the laws of population growth. The broader question is: What will we do to the increase in our species and its impact on our planet and on our future. Certainly it cannot be let settle down, as in spite of humungous efforts by organizations worldwide it has still not come down to the desirable.

Can we produce enough food to feed Earth’s growing human population? The answer has a lot to do with the environment and our treatment of it: Can we grow crops sustainably, so that both crop production and agricultural ecosystems remain viable? Can we produce this food without seriously damaging other ecosystems that receive the wastes of agriculture? And to these concerns we must now add: Can we produce all this food and also grow crops used only to produce fuels? Such questions cannot be answered under the current circumstances; however there is surety that it can be done.

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