The Economics of Modern Famine

Updated on September 25, 2016

Famine: Preface

Famine. Famine is a topic with great cultural and historical significance. Famine is a motif of one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. Food shortages were the main barrier to population growth in the ancient world and could wipe out whole populations. Famines kill not only from starvation and dehydration, but also from malnutrition that turns into infections, disease and the strife that comes with a food shortage. In modern times, many people usually associate famine with a natural disaster such as drought or plant disease, such as the Irish potato famine, but this is hardly ever the case, and in the few occasions it is, there is usually human greed and malice involved.

In modern times, famine is caused by natural disasters and other occurrences so much as global warming is caused by the ‘routine’ fluctuations in global temperature. To be fair, famines in ancient times were often caused by natural occurrences, such as a river flooding too much and crops getting swept away, or a dry season that lasted too long and killed the seeds before they could sprout etc., however the main reason for the vast majority of major famines is human intervention and government policy.

To illustrate this claim and explain what and how we can do better, I’ll start by explaining and analyzing the causes of the Great Irish Famine. Many history books would have you believe that the Irish potato famine of the 19th century was the result of potato blight and a Irish over-reliance on potatoes, that is not nearly the entire story. The famine was much more a result of racist English policies against the Irish than a natural disaster.

the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson

— Sir Charles Trevelyan
The Great Famine caused a mass emigration from Ireland to (mainly) America. Now America has a larger ethnic Irish population than Ireland.
The Great Famine caused a mass emigration from Ireland to (mainly) America. Now America has a larger ethnic Irish population than Ireland.

The Irish Potato Famine

A country Predisposed for disaster

Let’s start with the economic ‘sanctions’ that the British had imposed on the Irish preceding the famine. In the 18th century the middleman system of property management was implemented in Ireland, which allowed landowners to own the land, but place the responsibility of collecting rents and disciplining tenants to their agents, or middlemen.

At this time, Ireland was seen as a sort of English backwater, a sort of developing nation in a sense, so not many wealthy nobles wished to live there, due to this legislation change, wealthy English nobles and Anglo-Irish nobles bought up most of the land in Ireland, renting it out to tenants with minimum pay to raise crops to export back to England. English nobles bought 50,000+ acre chunks of land as a sort of ‘investment property’, milking every bit of profit they could out of it, while it meant increased prosperity for the English landowners, the Irish were left with bleak and destitute futures.

With most of the Irish peasantry slowly transitioning into an agrarian economy, forced into servitude with minimum wages, they could barely afford their own land. While the median amount of land owned by an English noble would’ve been about 10,000 acres, used for the primary benefit of English consumers of beef back home, the median for the peasantry was about 10 acres used for the only crops they could grow in small, suboptimal plots of land, potatoes. About 2 million people out of Ireland’s 8 million people were dependent on potatoes as the staple of their diet.

A peasant population dependent on one crop, which was extremely poor and malnourished, a lack of available farmland and a mean neighbor to the East were the ‘perfect circumstances’ for a famine, and a famine there was. Shortly after the spread of the potato blight, influenza, smallpox, dysentery and cholera spread just as fast. In total the famine killed around 20-25% of Ireland’s population. There’s no question that if people had access to food, the death toll would have been severely reduced. Yet the worst part about this situation is that there was no food shortage in the first place. Food was everywhere, but it was exuberantly priced out of range for the peasants, the people who grew it. They had two people to thank for that, Sir Charles Trevelyan and Thomas Malthus.

Famine emerges from a lack of interlocal trade; when one locality's food crop fails, since there is virtually no trade with other localities, the bulk of the people starve.

— Murray Rothbard

Malthusian Thought and Economic and Cultural Implications

The Power of Words

Around the time of the famine, free market, laissez-faire economic thought and capitalist thought were beginning to have some sway in England, also around this time, the ideas of Thomas Malthus were proliferated around England as well, particularly his ideas on population. If you haven’t heard of him, his general philosophy is that population grows geometrically and food output only grows linearly, so whenever the food output grows, the population will rapidly grow with it, eventually outpacing it, creating an overpopulation problem. Trevelyan, the man in charge of government ‘relief’ took the famine in stride, referring to the famine with such nice words as

“the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson”

whilst referring to the Irish people like this:

"The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people"

Anyone who was unemployed were doomed to a fate in one of Trevelyan’s work programs in which men did hard labor for barely enough food to survive, much less do hard labor. The landlords still required their tenants to work hard farming grain and churning butter for them, while the tenants were starving themselves.The ports were still very much up and running, shipping beef, butter, salmon and grain to England, guarded by military transport. In a previous famine, the Irish closed the ports to allow the Irish to eat some of the foods they grew themselves, due to excessive English lobbying and the Irish PM’s stubborn laissez-faire stance on government control, this didn’t happen. According to some sources Ireland maintained a trade surplus most of 5 year famine, while, in a nine month span during the worst year of the famine, shipping 1,000,000 gallons of butter back to England.

Recent Famine, anything but natural

Democratic Republic of the Congo

get directions

Location of the deadliest famine caused by war in the 21st century

North Korea:
North Korea

get directions

Location of a famine brought on by restrictive trade policies and bad political relations.


get directions

Location of the great famine brought on by the Khmer Rouge.

What can we learn?

Food for the World is food for thought

All in all, a self-concerned England purposefully let Ireland crash and burn during the famine with marginalizing land ownership policies, unfavorable working conditions and a general negligence during the time of the famine.

So what is there to gain in learning about the circumstances of the famine? Do we want to be the ‘England’ in a world where there is already so much strife? There are 2 ideas I take from this piece of history. One, we have to first realize that it is totally possible for the whole world to be well-fed. The second idea that we have to take away that is a good thing for everybody when the world is well-fed.

When kids in Africa (or anybody with no access to food) are well-fed, they are less likely to starve, have better lives and are much less likely to proliferate dangerous diseases, but that’s just scratching the surface. When those kids in Africa (or anybody with no access to food) don’t have to worry about food they can go to school, when they go to school they are much more likely to contribute to: important scientific innovations, infrastructure improvement, global relations, economic independence and a slew of other things that will end up benefiting you.

“But world population!” you protest. The world is still very rural, and we have room to grow and branch out as a species. While it’s totally natural to be concerned for overpopulation, since everyone has instinctive predisposition to contribute to an environment where their offspring can do well, it’s an outdated and xenophobic that is just incorrect. We eventually have to realize that we are all one species, that shouldn’t just be concerned for our own wellbeing, but for the species well-being as a whole.

Everyone has ideas. No one country has a monopoly on good ones, so its important to enable everyone to share and enact their ideas so that we can create a better world for everyone.
Everyone has ideas. No one country has a monopoly on good ones, so its important to enable everyone to share and enact their ideas so that we can create a better world for everyone.


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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      3 years ago from PNW

      Tough topic. Well done. Sharing everywhere.


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