Indian farmers shocked observers Tuesday when it was announced foodgrain production increased despite a massive drought hitting the country, reflecting the resiliency of India’s agriculture sector.
The Agriculture Ministry estimates the country will produce 252.23 million metric tons of foodgrains despite the drought impacting 11 Indian states. It’s something that was unthinkable just a few decades ago when mass starvation was the result of massive droughts.
India’s resilience to the current drought reflects a growing trend around the world. Famines are no longer the problem they used to be, according to those who study global hunger, and massive famines affecting millions of people have all but disappeared.
“Indeed it is all too easy to overlook historic, but unheralded achievements of the last 50 years: the elimination of calamitous famines (those that cause more than 1 million deaths) and the reduction almost to a vanishing point of great famines, or those that cause more than 100,000 deaths,” Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, wrote in a 2015 report on world hunger.
Prominent academics believed in the 1960s that mankind was on the brink of mass starvation, as rapid population growth outstripped the ability to feed ourselves. Apocalyptic biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 book “The Population Bomb” that:
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programmes embarked upon now.
Ehrlich wasn’t alone. William and Paul Braddock, brothers, released a book in 1967 called “Famine, 1975!” that predicted humans would outstrip their ability to feed themselves by 1975. The book predicted the U.S. would be able to feed some poor countries, but forced to choose which countries starved because food would be so scarce.
White House science czar John Holdren was also among the apocalyptics. Holdren co-authored a 1969 essay with Ehrlich where they argued “man’s present technology is inadequate to the task of maintaining the world’s burgeoning billions, even under the most optimistic assumptions.”
“No effort to expand the carrying capacity of the Earth can keep pace with unbridled population growth,” they wrote.
We look back now and laugh at such predictions, but for most of history mankind had been stuck in a Malthusian trap whereby starvation was rampant and millions could die when crops failed.
“Until the middle of the 20th century, the drumbeat of starvation was constant, with millions dying every decade,” de Waal wrote. “Between 1870 and 2014, 106 episodes of famine and mass starvation each killed 100,000 people or more.”
But human ingenuity eventually bailed us out, and as populations boomed, famines began to become less of a problem in terms of growing capacity.
“The trends are striking. During the 20th century, the death toll from great famines zigzagged, ranging from a 10-year high of 27 million in 1900–1909; to more than 15 million in each of the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s; to a low of 1.4 million during the 1990s,” de Waal wrote.
“In the 21st century thus far, the death toll is near 600,000,” he wrote.
The real problem for many countries was food distribution. Communist regimes of the 20th century were responsible for inducing famines that killed tens of millions of people. Communist China, for example, saw more than 80 million people die from famines from 1870 to 1970, but since the government opened up to the West and liberalized, there’s been no major famines for half a century.
Now, famines are typically linked to armed conflict. Modern agriculture techniques and genetically modified crops allow farmers to grow more food than ever before, but unstable government, bad policies and wars can still wipe out progress in parts of the world.
“The end of many Communist regimes, the adoption of international human rights norms, and the rise of globalization are among key factors that may help us eliminate famine forever,” de Waal wrote. “Despite a decrease in wars over recent decades, the number of violent conflicts and conflict-related deaths has increased from an all-time low in 2006. While the numbers are still low by historic standards, they suggest much more must be done to eliminate war and hunger. Today’s famines are complex humanitarian emergencies caused mostly by armed conflict.”
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