Eating People is Wrong, And Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future, by Cormac Ó Gráda

Liz Young discovers how failures in governance exacerbated the severity of historical famines

May 7, 2015

Arguably the greatest contrast between modern and pre-modern societies is the decline in the occurrence of famines. Although not conquered completely, they now represent just a fraction of hunger-related mortality. Most important of the reasons for their reduced incidence is the emergence and diffusion of democratic accountability and improved governance at national and international levels. In Eating People is Wrong, the economic historian Cormac Ó Gráda considers some of the most notorious famines and the relevance of failures in governance to their severity, and invites analogies between famine analysis and contemporary interpretations of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the HIV/Aids pandemic.

The book’s key message is the centrality of ideologies and politics to famine causation and responses: it is not a novel revelation but one often ignored in popular accounts that prioritise natural factors. Although the latter may be relevant to the emergence of famines, since the 18th century such crises have been exacerbated by political incompetence at best and maleficence at worst.

Exemplifying the problems inherent in all social science endeavours, Eating People is Wrong involves a noble battle with statistics. The first chapter’s evaluation of the incidence of cannibalism in famine – the source of the book’s title, although this phenomenon is only a small part of its focus – underscores the challenge. Measuring such behaviour is doomed to failure, as the victims are dead and the survivors are unlikely to admit to such acts. And, as other famine statistics show, “facts” are always contentious and contested; in reviewing very recent examples, Ó Gráda considers why it serves some non-governmental organisations to indulge in “disaster hype”.

Ó Gráda examines in detail the Great Bengal Famine of 1943-44 and “Mao’s Great Famine” in China from 1958 to 1962, the worst in human history, with frequent references to other such events. His evaluation of recently published material on the Chinese famine speaks to the political nature of such analysis. Estimates of numbers of victims range from 2 million by neo-Maoists, who focus on natural factors, to 60 million by Mao’s critics, who emphasise human causes.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted; its analysis includes pages of statistically opaque discussion and graphics. Even most of the higher education community will likely find the author’s “error correction model” neither as simple nor as familiar as he presumes. Novel insights are few, and much of this material has been considered elsewhere, including in Ó Gráda’s more engaging work aimed at a broader readership, Famine: A Short History (2009). I cannot endorse the publicity blurb asserting that this latest work “provides vital new perspectives on the profound questions raised by famines”, although it does consider many of the most contentious issues in famine research, and its final chapter offers salient discussion of future possibilities and constraints for food security.

It is pertinent to remember that although famines are less significant today, chronic malnutrition, including obesity, remains a major challenge for national and international governance, and it is every bit as contentious and politicised as famine analysis. It is instructive to evaluate patterns of food consumption in the affluent world and its role in the construction of malnutrition and environmental degradation elsewhere; the geography and politics of food are just as relevant today as in centuries past.

Eating People is Wrong, And Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future

By Cormac Ó Gráda
Princeton University Press, 248pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691165356 and 9781400865819 (e-book)
Published 8 April 2015

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