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value of their labor, and the price of
food can prove disastrous.
The recent worldwide increase in
food prices and resultant crises ex-
emplify the point. While famine is
typically understood as a supply-dri-
ven phenomenon that occurs when
some shock reduces food produc-
tion, the current global food price in-
creases are primarily a result of
long-term, demand-driven trends —
not a reduction in aggregate food supply.
These price increases primarily affect urban con-
sumers, who depend on markets for food. While full-
fledged famines have historically been more common in
rural areas, some of those who die of hunger in cities are
actually internally displaced persons, who have migrated
from rural to urban areas in search for food or employ-
Food crises can mutate into famines when prices rise
or incomes fall too rapidly and steeply for those living in
absolute poverty to absorb the shock. Those who can af-
ford sustenance even at higher prices enjoy continued ac-
cess, though they may reduce their daily nutritional
intake or consume more low-cost, low-calorie foods, as
people suffering from the current price increases appear
to be doing in many countries.
Like food distress generally, famine is not a single
event, but unfolds over time, often years. Insidiously, it
may not cause any widespread mortality for a year or two,
until disease induced by acute malnutrition and weakened
immune systems begins taking a massive toll.
Compounding the toll of famines, epidemics may
break out when refugees leave their homes en masse in
search of food, exposing themselves to new environments
to which their immune systems are unaccustomed.
Coping Mechanisms
Those most vulnerable in a food crisis or famine em-
ploy various coping mechanisms to survive. Such mech-
anisms have predictive value, meaning that their presence
in a society may indicate an incipient famine or food cri-
sis. While at least 14 such mechanisms may manifest
themselves during the various stages of a famine, three of
them have dire political and security consequences.
First, in most famines, precautionary and speculative
withholding of food stocks — hoarding — exacerbates
food supply problems. For example,
during the 1974 Bangladesh famine,
newspaper reports of expected crop
damage from severe flooding led to
widespread hoarding. This drove
markets to anticipate shortages, dou-
bling the price of grain between Feb-
ruary and June of that year. Famine
then ensued as the poor were priced
out of the market.
When prices increase, large farm-
ers withhold surplus crops in hopes of further price in-
creases, while small shareholders store food to hedge
against soaring market prices. If the price increases are a
result of supply failure and individuals are unable to meet
their subsistence needs, prices may increase even further.
When hungry people discover warehouses of hoarded
grain during a famine, they frequently take matters into
their own hands and loot the supplies, increasing civil un-
Another coping mechanism, which is economically and
politically destabilizing, is migration away from the epi-
center of food shortages. Teenage boys and men with
families are typically the first to migrate in the pre-famine
phase, often flocking to urban areas in search of work to
support their families. If conditions worsen and famine
ensues, entire families often follow, as happened in So-
malia 20 years ago and again in 2010 and 2011.
Even if the displaced reach refugee camps, they typi-
cally find abysmal sanitary conditions. Poor, unaccompa-
nied women are subject to physical and sexual violence,
and traditional family ties break down. Warlords have
taken control of many camps, where they recruit unem-
ployed, angry and hungry young men for their armies and
militias. Such influxes are also politically destabilizing for
host countries, which is why the Kenyan government re-
cently sent troops into Somalia to try to open up supply
lines to feed people there — leaving its military seriously
bogged down.
To cite another example, the Iraqi insurgency that
began in 2004 was partially fueled by migration of desti-
tute young men from rural areas, where the agricultural
economy had collapsed even before the war began. Most
of these men were living on the streets of large cities and
were easily recruited into militias.
Similarly, the United Nations mission in Afghanistan
reports that a sharp hike in food prices in 2008 con-
Rapidly rising food
prices drove the Arab
Spring at least as much
as did demands for
political reform.
F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / M A R C H 2 0 1 2