Perspectives on Hunger in the World

Dr. Sparks is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Institute on Public Policy and Private Enterprise at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

The atmosphere in which problems of world hunger are discussed today is charged with emotion. Formerly there were those who quite properly called our attention to hunger in the world and advocated voluntary Christian charity as a response. But, increasingly, there is a harsher sound to the "hunger rhetoric." Some large and influential groups, for instance, are advocating the creation of a new "right to food." Others disdain talk of rights but they do make accusations ascribing "world hunger" to the existence of an "affluent West." What causes hunger in the world? Are matters getting worse today or better? What should be our perspectives on hunger in the world?

Famine, the severe shortage of food in a wide geographic area, has been the rule rather than the exception throughout most of history. Biblical accounts frequently mention famine. A vast famine sent Abraham and then Joseph’s family to Egypt. Famine sets the stage for much of the book of Ruth; famine occurs during King David’s reign. There are at least a dozen other references in the Bible to famine.

In more recent periods, observers report that there were ten famines in what we call Europe during the 10th century and twenty-six famines in the 11th century .1 In the 13th century famine occurred in England and Ireland at the beginning of the era (1203) and again in England only six years later (1209). During the English famine of 1239, there were reports of people eating their children. Other serious famines during the 13th century were reported in Germany (1243), Sicily (1268), Poland (1281) and Scotland (1297).2

An analysis of the 14th century produces a similar picture of frequent famine. One historian summarizes it this way: "By 1300, almost every child born in western Europe faced the probability of extreme hunger at least once or twice during his expected 30 to 35 years of life."³ More particularly general famine was reported in France in 1304, 1305, 1310, 13151317, 13301334, 1344, 13491351, 13581360, 1371, 13741375 and 1390.4 There were many more local famines. During this century in which Europe suffered so many food crises, it is well worth noting that India was no better off. Her worst known famine occurred in 1396 and lasted for 12 years.5 General famine was the rule rather than the exception during century after century of history.

In the 19th and 20th centuries the pattern of famine was altered. Agricultural economist D. Gale Johnson says that famine has decreased in the two most recent centuries both as a percentage of the world’s population affected by serious hunger and in terms of absolute numbers of persons dying from hunger!’ Put another way, in parts of the world which previously faced famine decade after decade, hunger is no longer a problem. Yet food disasters continue to occur in other parts of the globe. Why was famine so prevalent in past centuries and why does it continue in some parts of the world today?

War and Political Instability

Famine often follows war. The reason is not difficult to understand. War creates grave, continuous disruption of agricultural endeavors. It is no coincidence that the hungry European 14th century parallels the "Hundred Years War" (13371453), that long series of clashes between France and England. Food production was set back then because the soldiers scorched fields, destroyed the few farming tools in existence, and burned mills, barns, manors, vineyards and orchards.’ Fearing for their lives, farmers frequently fled to the towns. Economists say that such military actions brought food hardships because capital goods, those implements used in further production of food, were destroyed. Moreover, labor was frightened away from the necessary site of production!’ Though farmers could easily return to the land when the danger had passed, the replacement of capital goods—draft animals and barn—especially in the medieval economy, was slow and painful. Consequently, agricultural production was badly hurt immediately and for decades to come.

In the most recent centuries food shortages of various magnitudes have accompanied great wars. But in addition, the threat of famine has flourished in the economic turmoil produced by modern internal revolutions. Observing the French Revolution in 1791, Carlyle wrote: ". . . bread, always dear, is getting dearer."9 Referring to the year 1793 in France another historian observed that: "The people were weary of being dragged from crisis to crisis. Industry was in ruins, famine menaced the cities."¹º

Those modern revolutions which are heirs to the French Revolution have produced similar effects on agriculture. For example, Mao’s "Great Leap Forward" (19581960), a revolutionary effort to "purify" Chinese Communism and release it from the control of Soviet Communism, had a deleterious impact upon food provision. Chinese peasants were forced by the revolution to accept the commune system, relinquish their small private plots and take work assignments in nonagricultural production. As a result, there is reliable evidence that a famine of considerable size occurred in China in 1959. The Great Leap forward was actually a giant step backward for Chinese food production.

Unceasing revolutionary disruptions have caused food scarcity in many South American republics, in Asia, and most recently in Africa. The atmosphere necessary for dependable food production is not relentless revolutionary strife, bloodshed, burning and war, but peace, order and liberty for the individual producers.

Institutionalized Envy in Less Developed Countries

Among the causes of famine is one described by Eric Wolf as "institutionalized envy."11 Such institutionalized envy exists in the tribal and village cultures of many of the less developed countries—envy nourished by social practice. Institutionalized envy’s impact upon all forms of economic production can be grave indeed. Sociologist Wolf reported some years ago that in certain South American villages a farmer who raised crops superior to those of his neighbors would be the object of intense envy. Because he feared such social ostracism, he would make every effort not to "stand out" above the rest, that is, not to produce above the average.12 Consequently, social attitudes helped to restrain the successful, innovative, or energetic agricultural producer. Similarly, another observer recently reports that Guatemalan Indians who manage to achieve high relative incomes often secrete their wealth because they fear the charge that they are becoming "Latins," that is, like the Spanish speaking, non Indian population.¹³ One does not know how many others eschew successful production or higher incomes in order to avoid the resentment of their fellow Indians.

Among Northern Rhodesian tribes, a prosperous person may be suspected of black magic. A good crop yield, for example, may be attributed to the fruitful farmer’s evil use of a magical crow which it is alleged stole seed from the fields of neighbors and thereby produced a good crop for the high yield farmer." Though such an explanation is logically deficient by Western standards, natives will go to great ends to avoid such charges. Tribal and family claims can have a similar discouraging effect upon the productive.

S. Herbert Frankel tells the story of a hapless Ghanaian tribal chief whose abilities earned him a position in the offices of a European exporting firm. Whenever his relatives thought he had accumulated any savings they met him outside the bank to apply "the thumbscrews of family obligation."" Frankel says that in West Africa it was common for unscrupulous relatives to covet and demand the wealth and income of more productive family members, thus increasing the difficulty of saving and reducing the capital available for urgently needed agricultural investment.

Governmental Policies

Ill-considered governmental policies have increased the likelihood of famine. The imposition of price controls gives a common example. Economists agree that a shortage of a particular good can certainly be contrived by fixing the price of the commodity below what its normal market price would have been. When such a policy is followed, less of the commodity will be produced and more will be demanded. The resulting shortage will continue as long as the unwise governmental price control remains in effect. Quite understandably, price controls are often found in the midst of famine.

Consider the food crisis about which most Americans have knowledge, the famine during 1973 in the African region known as the Sahel. Western television beamed news reports about the food hardship in the six West African countries of Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Upper Volta, Niger and Chad. A severe drought, it is true, helped to precipitate the mass famine. But here is the additional sad, irrational fact—the governments of the Sahel had followed the practice of keeping the prices of farm produce artificially depressed in order to keep food prices low for urban dwellers." The abnormally low prices increased the dearth of food by making it uneconomical for food to be produced locally or imported except on illegal, cumbersome "black markets." Only the response of Western nations through relief agencies kept famine deaths as low as 100,000.

In like manner the government of India, the country which contains within its borders nearly one half of the world’s food problem, has irrationally thwarted the progress of food production in that food hungry land. The government has generally held farm prices for rice below market prices. As a result, the new high yield varieties of rice have not been adopted as rapidly as was hoped for.¹7

Another governmental policy which inhibits food output is strict opposition by the state to the private ownership of property. Private ownership of personal and real property provides strong natural incentives to produce which cannot be duplicated by those economic systems which deny property rights. The food disasters of bygone centuries were made more intense and frequent by the hobbling effect on production of communal land ownership. The Soviets have had to live with the harmful effects of "collective ownership," namely, poor crop production on state farms, and at the same time, the embarrassing fact that disproportionately large amounts of farm produce are raised on the small, privately owned plots farmed by the peasantry in their" spare time." Less developed countries which embrace state operated agriculture as "the only way to insure food progress" will reap, not food, but a whirlwind of misery and death.

Saving and Hunger

Even in those less developed countries where political stability is maintained, where ownership rights are protected, and where there are no coveting social attitudes, the key to agricultural productivity will depend upon the steady accumulation of capital savings. This pool of savings—money capital—finances the creation of production increasing capital goods, that is, tools, machinery and equipment. In the less developed world, where basic food demands are great, the capital goods made possible by existing savings are likely to take the form of farm equipment or storage barns. In turn, the use of these capital goods will make greater food production possible.

However, the accumulation of capital savings from the resources of native savers is a slow and painful process. When personal incomes are low, then saving is, at first, halting. Pre-industrial Britain is a case in point. There the slow internal formation of capital took place over a period of 150 years before more rapid growth occurred.

Developing countries in the 19th century (like the fledgling United States) did not have to rely alone upon the limited savings of their own citizens. The American commonwealth grew in part because foreign capital came to its shores. English and Scottish investors sank millions of dollars into agricultural ventures in the American West, for example. In 1883 there were 21 major British cattle companies in the West developing land, drainage and cattle raising. One, the Prairie Cattle Company ranged 100,000 cattle over 1 million acres—a capital investment of $2.5 million. Total Scottish investment in U.S. cattle at the same time is estimated at $25 million.¹8

Fortunately, today the people of less developed countries do not have to finance those capital improvements which would expand their food production out of their own meager savings. Capital is available for such purposes in Western capital markets. All that less developed countries need do to attract such savings is to demonstrate that they will be good hosts to foreign investors by maintaining a climate of safety for ventured savings. Unfortunately, as many times as not, the less developed countries have driven away foreign capital by their insistence upon expensive investment prerequisites and policies of seizure. As a result, three fourths of U.S. foreign investment is made today in already developed countries—Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia—not in the less developed world.

False Explanations

Food hardships are fostered by political instability, destructive social attitudes, and governments that work against saving and production. Nevertheless, current "world opinion" does not encourage the people of poor nations to see the true folly of their own national policies and ways. Instead, the poor and hungry are urged to believe that it is the prosperous West which is to blame for their plight. The gigantic, continued success of American capitalism must be at the expense of the world’s less fortunate, it is insinuated. According to anti capitalistic ideology, plenty for U.S. citizens is purchased by the poverty of Third World peoples.

None of these "exploitation theorists" understands very much about economic reality. But, they commonly make two charges that deserve analysis. First, they say that the colonialism and imperialism of the past gravely harmed the national economies of the underdeveloped world (including their ability to produce food) while at the same time bolstering the capitalistic West. Noted authorities on economic development disagree.

Professor Peter T. Bauer says that although it cannot be shown conclusively that past colonial presence brought with it an increase in material wellbeing, ". . . it is highly probable that over the last century or so the establishment of colonial rule in Africa and Asia has promoted, and not retarded, material progress."¹9 Continues Bauer, ". . . the colonial governments established law and order, safeguarded private property and contractual relations, organized basic transport and health services, and introduced some modern financial and legal institutions."²º In addition, colonial rule opposed conditions that were inimical to material progress such as frequent "civil and tribal war and the prevalence of slavery." Colonialism did confer certain enduring benefits upon the colonies.

In answer to the charge that the West could not have advanced except at ruinous costs to underdeveloped nations, Bauer firmly summarizes: "The prosperity of the West has been generated by its own population and not achieved at the expense of Africa or other underdeveloped countries."22 Today economists are forced to admit that Britain and France obtained virtually nothing in net economic benefits from their colonial possessions. Empire was unprofitable to the imperialist." Private French and British investors, as often as not, found better investment opportunities outside their nation’s colonies rather than within them.24 Portugal, which clung to its colonies for 400 years, longer than any other European nation, can only show for it the lowest per capita income in all of Europe.²5 Furthermore, if substantial "subservient colonies" are really a necessary ingredient for the success of Western capitalism, how can the extraordinary growth of the United States be explained?

True, America experienced a "brief moment of imperial fervor." But, the U.S. did not gain its limited "colonies" until the late 1890s at a point in time when it had already achieved a full century of remarkable economic development without colonial possessions. Moreover, how can such Western market type economies—Canada, Australia, Switzerland, and Scandinavia—which have had no "colonies to exploit," and yet have prospered, be fit into the neat explanation that capitalistic economic progress depends upon regress elsewhere in the world? The formula which claims to demonstrate that the West fattens itself on the world’s hunger is based upon a strained Marxist-Leninist ideology which is plainly refuted by reality.

The other indictment returned against the US. is that it is consuming too large a percentage of the "world’s grain supply."

U.S. citizens today do consume per person as much as five times the grain (including grain fed to livestock) eaten by persons in some developing nations.26 However, two things should be noted well. First, per capita grain use in the U.S. actually declined between 1909 and 1971 due, primarily, to the substitution of mechanical for animal power.27 Second, far from being something ominous, the American’s ability to partake of abundance is incontrovertible evidence that free, capital equipped workers produce more and therefore can demand more of all goods, including grain products.

Some observers who are economically naive believe that all that is needed to assure the world of enough food is for Americans to cut their grain consumption drastically. Apparently, the hamburgers and hot dog buns forgone will somehow be transformed into more grain for the impoverished, worldwide. What these opponents of the current level of consumption fail to realize is that were such a curtailment in grain demand to occur, U.S. grain production (supply) would soon decrease as well. There is no convincing proof that the hungry in the rest of the world would be beneficiaries of such a reduction in U.S. consumer grain demand. What the poor countries of the world really need is not a lower standard of living for U.S. citizens, but a higher one for themselves.


Christianity teaches its adherents that Faith should be completed by works of charity. The hearts of those who have been blessed with the God given gifts of orderly societies, of protection for legitimate economic undertakings, and of a social atmosphere where envy does not dominate, ought to respond to those who suffer, with corporate and individual giving. But, at the same time, the reasons for continuing food hardships ought to be proclaimed. For families worldwide could be receiving untold benefits which they, themselves, their ways, and their governments have made, as yet, unattainable.



¹E. P. Prentice, Hunger and History (Constitution and Free Enterprise Foundation: New York, 1939), p. 24.

²Ibid., pp. 24, 25, and 26.

³Harry A. Miskimin, The Economy of Early Renaissance Europe, 13001460 (Prentice Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1969), pp. 2627. *Ibid., p. 26.

5E. Washburn Hopkins, India Old and New (Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1902), p. 236.

‘D. Gale Johnson, World Food Problems and Prospects (American Enterprise Institute: Washington D.C., 1975), p. 17.

7Miskimin, p. 52.

8Miskimin, p. 53.

‘Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, Vol. II (Thompson & Thomas: Chicago) p. 71. "Henry E. Bourne, The Revolutionary Period in Europe (The Century Co.: New York, 1914) p. 194.

¹¹Helmut Schoeck, Envy (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.: New York, 1966), p. 46.

¹²Ibid., p. 47.

"James Luenberger, "Guatemala" (unpublished presentation), Grove City, Pa., April, 1978."Schoeck, p. 49.

¹4Schoeck, p. 60.

"V. W. Sewell & L. M. Street, Is the Sahel a Wasteland? (Overseas Development Council: Washington D.C., 1976).

"Johnson, p. 75.

"Roger V. Clements, "British Investment and American Legislative Restrictions in the Tran Mississippi West, 18801900" in T. C. Cochran & Thomas B. Brewer, Views of American Economic Growth (McGraw-Hill Book Co.: New York, 1966), pp. 163164.

"P. T. Bauer, Dissent on Development (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1972), p. 149.


"Bauer, p. 149.

²²Bauer, p. 169. (Italics added)

"Kenneth E. Boulding & T. Mukerjee, eds., Economic Imperialism (University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 1972), p. xiii.

"Mark Blaug, "Economic Imperialism Revisited," The Yale Review, 50 (March, 1961), pp. 341342.

²5Boulding, p. xiii.

²6Johnson, pp. 3536.

"Johnson, p. 37.



Price Controls in France, 1789-1793

"The arguments in the convention relative to the matter ran the whole gamut from the principles of economic liberty advocated by the economists of the day to the radical abstractions of Robespierre and his followers, who swept commerce aside by maintaining that ‘the food necessary to man is sacred as life itself,’ and ‘The fruits of the earth like the atmosphere belong to all men.’

"One of the most interesting of the many suggestions made in the convention was that of Barbaroux who advocated ‘a plan to form local associations to collect and circulate information about the crops. In other words, for coercion he would substitute cooperation, believing that the French citizens, farmers and merchants included, would not turn a deaf ear to an appeal for common action against the oncoming peril’ (famine). Price fixing finally became one of the characteristic features of the Reign of Terror, and when Robespierre and his councilors passed through the streets of Paris in the carts of the executioners the mob jeered saying, ‘There goes the dirty maximum.’ "

HENRY E. BOURNE, "Food Control and Price Fixing in Revolutionary France," Journal of Political Economy, February and March 1919 

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