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.

voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it