Famine in the Remaking
264 pages, 7 x 10
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Release Date:27 Feb 2020
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Famine in the Remaking

Food System Change and Mass Starvation in Hawaii, Madagascar, and Cambodia

SERIES: Radical Natures
West Virginia University Press
Mass starvation’s causes may seem simple and immediate: crop failure, poverty, outbreaks of violence, and poor governance. But famines are complex, and scholars cannot fully understand what causes them unless they look at their numerous social and environmental precursors over long arcs of history and over long distances.
Famine in the Remaking examines the relationship between the reorganization of food systems and large-scale food crises through a comparative historical analysis of three famines: Hawaii in the 1820s, Madagascar in the 1920s, and Cambodia in the 1970s. This examination identifies the structural transformations—that is, changes to the relationships between producers and consumers—that make food systems more vulnerable to failure. Moving beyond the economic and political explanations for food crisis that have dominated the literature, Stian Rice emphasizes important socioecological interactions, developing a framework for crisis evolution that identifies two distinct temporal phases and five different types of causal mechanisms involved in food system failure. His framework contributes to current work in famine prevention and, animated by a commitment to social justice, offers the potential for early intervention in emerging food crises.
Important and impressive scholarly work.’
Pritam Singh, University of Oxford
An elegant and impassioned comparative account . . . At a moment when the specter of famine appears close, Stian Rice’s Famine in the Remaking is a compelling and welcome intervention into the origins of famine.’
Agricultural History
Stian Rice is a food systems geographer whose research examines the slow-moving social and environmental changes to agricultural production and food consumption. He received a doctorate in geography from Kent State University and is currently with the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Famine is a big word. It conjures images of desiccated and fly-covered bodies packed into relief camps. It recalls vast, arid swathes of the earth—dustbowls littered with scorched fields, cattle carcasses, and swollen bellies. For some, famine invokes indictments of communism; for others, colonialism or capitalism (cf. Sen 1999; Davis 2002). It has initiated and terminated social movements, foretold the collapse of governments, and preceded the conquest of nations (Brunel 2002). Famine consorts with concepts like genocide and holocaust, and has marked watersheds in social and cultural history. But, always, famine is a word that prefaces a body count.
This book is not only about “big” famine, but the big things that cause it: societies, economies, ecologies, climate, and war. As such, I tend to speak in broad and abstract terms. I talk about slow and irresistible forces of change, discuss the impacts of these changes on amorphous populations, and describe the consequences in broad generalizations. Indeed, to analyze famine is to invoke a conceptual scale that makes it easy to lose sight of the victims. This book attempts to maintain a depth of field that keeps continents and centuries in focus and still resolves crops, cows, and corpses. But overcoming the tremendous scale implicit in famine analysis is an extraordinary challenge.
For this reason, I start with the fundamental unit of all famines: the human body. After all, it is the body that connects every victim of starvation to every other. It is the body’s adaptations to hunger that serve as the last defense against death, and it is the body’s physiological strategies for resisting starvation that provide the best counterpoint to the socioeconomic and socionatural systems examined throughout this book.
Starvation and the Body
It is hard to die from hunger. Through a ceaseless negotiation between needs and resources, a healthy body will go to extraordinary lengths to keep itself alive. When the supply of food is first interrupted, the body metabolizes whatever remains in the digestive tract before switching to the consumption of glycogen in liver cells. The conversion of glycogen is important for making glucose: unlike other tissue, brain cells require glucose to function. But after two to three days, glycogen is depleted, and the body’s tactics must change. Metabolism switches to the consumption of free fatty acids from stores of fat. Other tissues help out: for example, when muscle cells receive fatty acids through the bloodstream, they switch off their consumption of glucose, reserving this precious sugar for the brain.
Around the four-day mark, the body’s options for producing glucose are gone. Once again, the liver changes tactics, this time converting fatty acids into ketone bodies—simple, water-soluble molecules that can be consumed by brain tissue (Coffee 1999). Human beings are the only animal with a brain that can function on both glucose and ketones, a remarkable adaptation that prolongs survival by delaying the final stage of starvation: the consumption of the body’s own muscles and organ tissue (Cahill and Veech 2003). But this adaptation comes with physiological costs. Ketosis, the metabolic state in which ketone bodies are produced and consumed is frequently accompanied by weakness, exhaustion, extreme thirst, dry mouth, and cramping in the extremities. In some cases, ketosis can lead to ketoacidosis, a condition in which the acidic ketone bodies have pushed blood pH dangerously low. Ketoacidosis can lead to nausea, vomiting, hyperventilation, and death (Mostert and Bonavia 2016).
Once fat stores have been depleted, the body begins to break down protein-rich muscles, releasing amino acids into the bloodstream. The liver switches back to producing glucose through the conversion of these amino acids. The cost of survival is extreme: the body has started to eat itself to stay alive. Over time, key organ functions suffer as muscle tissue is consumed (Coffee 1999). The hungry become listless, withdrawn, and apathetic. They also become increasingly vulnerable to disease (Young and Jaspars 1995).
With the loss of key vitamins and minerals, the body’s immune system begins to fail. Skin begins to flake and hair can change color. Red spots may form under the skin from subcutaneous bleeding, a condition known as purpura that results from a lack of Vitamin C. Corneal lesions and night blindness may develop due to Vitamin A deficiency. The body becomes more susceptible to skin and respiratory infections. Crowded conditions increase the chance of infectious diseases like measles, typhoid, and cholera. Now that the body is consuming its own amino acids, tissue begins to absorb water (edema). Symptoms of protein deficiency emerge, like kwashiorkor (a swelling of the belly and liver), marasmus, and dehydration. All are accompanied by severe pain (Checchi et al. 2007). Body temperature may fluctuate and victims may suffer from hyperventilation and pneumonia. In the end, death usually comes from cardiac arrest or arrhythmia resulting from electrolyte imbalance or the degradation of cardiac tissue.
This process can take up to 12 weeks, a testament to the body’s remarkable ability to turn its own matter into time. It accomplishes this feat by continuously balancing the metabolism of energy sources with the needs of key organs. By contrast, the socioeconomic and socionatural food systems designed to provide sustenance to these bodies can fail within minutes—through a wildfire that destroys crops, a tsunami that floods essential fields, a financial market collapse, or the passage of new legislative measures (cf. Kondo 1988; Davis 2002; Garenne 2002; Brinkman et al. 2010). Rather than balancing resources with needs, these systems invariably do the opposite: markets move food away from the hungry and toward the wealthy, land reforms accelerate the expropriation of capital and increase vulnerability, and worker programs jeopardize food production by redirecting labor toward cash crops. Unlike the body’s unwavering focus on self-preservation, the systems we depend upon for food are often designed to serve other masters than the hungry, and satisfy other needs than survival.
Mass Starvation and Society
It is hard to die from hunger; yet, millions do. Over 110 million died from famine in the 20th century, more than in any previous century.1 In 2002, a food crisis in southern Africa put 14 million people at risk of starvation before aid arrived (Devereux and Tiba 2006). As of this writing (May 2018), as many as 16 million face starvation in East Africa, especially communities in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Half the population of Somalia is currently classified as “food insecure” (FAO 2017) and Save the Children reports that up to 85,000 children have starved to death in Yemen where hunger has increasingly become a weapon of war (McKernan 2018; Mohareb and Ivers 2018). This comes at a time of unparalleled abundance: total global grain production in 2016–17 was over 2.5 billion metric tons, the most in history (Statista 2017).
This paradox of mass starvation and mass food production has inspired prolific literature, funded a multibillion-dollar aid industry, and motivated extensive scientific research (including this book). If we are producing enough food to feed the planet, why does mass starvation persist? What is it about the way our global food systems are organized that makes it difficult—or undesirable—to eradicate hunger? Theories about the causes of famine have been topics of vigorous debate for decades. What have we gotten right? Where have we gone wrong? Finally, how do we begin to reorganize our food systems to make hunger obsolete? These questions occupy the heart of this study.
Global food systems are experiencing unprecedented transformation. Population growth, changing diets, shifting geopolitical and trade regimes, social movements, civil unrest, land and labor reform, agrarian transition, climate change, and global market penetration are combining to reshape food provisioning, rearranging the complex network of actors and processes that link producers (farmers, ranchers, and fishers) with an increasingly diverse set of consumers. Historically, these changes have had mixed results: some technological improvements and political reforms have increased abundance while others have created new barriers to access and new forms of exploitation. Some changes have precipitated food system collapse and led to mass starvation. This book examines three of these violent failures: Hawaii in the 1820s, Madagascar in the 1920s, and Cambodia in the 1970s. These are stories of economic collapse, social revolution, species introduction, disease epidemics, market reform, imperialism, embargoes, and war. They are also stories of well-intentioned but, ultimately, destructive rescue attempts. Indeed, despite the intervening decades and centuries, the through-lines of these narratives bear an uncomfortable similarity to the causes of food crisis today.
The use of the word remaking in the title reflects two simultaneous objectives for this book. On the one hand, the three case studies examine the relationship between reorganization (the remaking of food systems) and famine. After all, knowing what kinds of transformations have precipitated past failures is essential for avoiding future disaster. On the other, this book reflects on the state of the famine scholarship, offering a perspective that highlights the large-scale and slow-moving processes of social and environmental change constantly reshaping our food provisioning systems. There is still much to learn about what causes famine at these temporal and spatial scales. In this regard, I hope this book contributes to remaking our theories of famine genesis.
In the end, understanding the actors and mechanisms that drive reorganization can do more than prevent future crises; it can help direct food system reform and transformation. Today, we face the challenge of remaking modern food systems in ways that increase agricultural resilience, promote environmental justice, provide equitable access, and—critically—prevent hunger. To achieve these goals, we need to make the systems that provision food as irrepressible as the living bodies that depend on them.
1. The Hawaiian Sandalwood Famines: 1820s
2. Madagascar’s “Cactus War”: 1924–30
3. War and Reconstruction Famine in Cambodia: 1970–79
4. Famine in the Remaking: The Structure of Food System Failure
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