We grow our food, we make our famines

I APOLOGISE for introducing an unappetising subject into these hedonistic food pages, but my doing so is prompted by reading a fascinating book (Bread and Salt by E E F Smith and David Christian, Cambridge University Press, pounds 32.50), a work that treats, among much else of great interest (especially drink), of the perennial famines of Russia.

It contains a description by a local doctor of the inhabitants of Tambov province in the 1880s: 'The people are small, weak, sickly, incapable of any prolonged or heavy exertion. There are villages here whose inhabitants are never hired as workers because they are notoriously lethargic and incapable of hard work. The women are pale, ugly and shapeless; they age very quickly; many of their children are still-born, and miscarriages are even more common. The children are almost all scrofulous and pale, and they are constantly sick.'

What caught my attention is the authors' comment: 'Such passages provide a cruel illustration of what one might call the law of accumulating disadvantages in peasant society.'

A law of accumulating disadvantages. That has a good, solid feel to it. For famine is not a sudden thing; it is the result of prolonged malnutrition, and its causes are not merely crop failures due to long, arid periods or blight. Dozens of other factors are at work in creating famine: cultural, social, logistical, commercial, marketing and governmental. Distributing food to the hungry - as in Somalia or Bosnia - is not always the solution.

The principal victims of famine are the peasantry, and almost invariably a peasantry that is dependent for its main source of food on a single crop. Thus it was that between 1601 and 1604 such a famine struck rye-dependent Russia, and Count Bussow was able to report that 'I saw with my own eyes people lying on the street; in the summer they ate grass and in the winter hay . . . Some were already dead; straw and dung protruded from their mouths'. The death toll in Moscow alone was well over 100,000.

But it is the surrounding circumstances of this famine that should interest us. The Tsar offered money (though he did not call his charity Operation Hope), causing thousands 'in the countryside to abandon everything (and) rush to Moscow to receive this money'. Meanwhile, the Tsar would not allow foreign grain to be unloaded, because, in Bussow's words, 'he did not want the shame that grain from other lands be bought and sold in his country which was rich in grain'. Profiteers were at work; prices rose; the poor could not afford them. Food was available to the rich; getting it was a matter of distribution and commerce.

If this sounds familiar in the context of current world politics, it is because the causes of famine (like the results) do not change. They are relatively predictable and, in theory, remediable.

For the few days I spent in Mogadishu some 40 years ago, in the company of an Italian gentleman who did his best to teach me the tango, I was gastronomically (forgive me for mentioning the word alongside famine) half-way between the Levant and Italy. It was a pleasant, seedy town and, thanks to its mixture of races, sophisticated in its own way. I was no more conscious of poverty and malnutrition than I would have been in any other part of East Africa. The Somalis are a spare race but they breed cattle and, where there is water, they grow food, especially millet and other grains.

None the less, the law of accumulating disadvantages was already at work: the balance of the economy was tenuous and dependent on the external world; disparity between rich and poor was readily apparent - at the bottom, survival was always at stake. And prolonged civil war, since 1969, has done the rest.

War has done its work in Bosnia, too, but the hunger there is not, as in Somalia, building on malnutrition - in terms of food, Bosnia was fairly paradisaical. This is ordinary disruption, something like a typhoon in Bangladesh. It will pass; whereas in Bangladesh it will not because, thanks to their accumulated disadvantages, the peasantry have already stored up long- term deficiencies as was the case in Biafra or Ethiopia.

The value of Bread and Salt is its emphasis on the social factors that affect food. We construct our own food culture and it is perfectly possible, in terms of a long depression, to imagine our own population looking not unlike the citizens of Tambov more than 100 years ago. Those of us who remember the early Thirties, or the prolonged scarcities of the war years, can indeed recall such conditions.

The picture of eating in Russia that the authors go on to present is of a historical growth from daily bread to a varied diet and, in developed countries, that has been the main factor in achieving a reasonably satisfactory level of nourishment. But our underclass, our poor, eat an unvarying diet; they are accumulating disadvantages like the poor elsewhere. In many parts of the world this is an agricultural, and consequently a cultural, fact: hence the title Bread and Salt.

But it need not be so: no more for ourselves than for the Somalis. Famine is, alas, a class matter. And therefore beyond the means of the Marines to solve.