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We Might Be Headed For a Great American Famine

If we don't change course, millions will starve

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished about a month ago Updated 6 days ago 9 min read
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Daniel Kraft via Wikimedia Commons

Many Americans are currently hungry. Organizations like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimate that the number of food-insecure Americans is in the tens of millions. We are a culture comfortable with a large percentage of our population being hungry, with even more on the cusp of that reality.

What terrifies me is what happens when this already tenuous system is shaken to its core. We might like to believe that our society would adjust to prevent starvation on a mass scale, but I worry that the United States has become too slow and recalcitrant to do that and, as a result, that a Great American Famine might be on its way.

An Irish aside

My favorite piece of satire of all time is Jonathan Swift's “A Modest Proposal,” where he suggests that Irish people should cook their babies as a food source so that they can be of "use," writing: "…instead of [a child] being a charge upon their parents, or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing of many thousands." This piece mocked how the British treated the Irish in 1729— over a century before the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1840s through the early 1850s.

Many of us have heard of this famine, but what's not discussed as much (in non-Irish circles) is that this mass starvation of about one million deaths or greater was more about politics than a rogue pathogen. Other countries were impacted by the blight, which we now know as Phytophthora infestans (something still quite a nuisance to modern crops), but because Ireland was a colonial holding of the British, much of their agriculture was being exported to support British industries, and interests.

This disruption was so impactful to the Irish people because the potato was a high-caloric crop that made up a large portion of the average Irish person’s diet. The British seized much of the land and diverted its yields to imperial interests, not letting Irish people eat the food they produced for those overseas. When this stress hit the Irish agriculture system, these imperial landholders were unwilling to change course so that the native inhabitants could eat. They valued British pounds over Irish lives, and that deluded logic killed many in what some have labeled a genocide. In the words of Quinnipiac University Professor Christine Kinealy via Paste Magazine:

“Following the appearance of the potato blight, a number of people in Ireland requested the government to close the Irish ports to keep food inside the country. [The British] refused to do so on the grounds that merchants would bring food in under free market forces. Of course, this did not happen.”

We can see this critique levied not just retrospectively by academics but by critics of the time. In A Modest Proposal, Swift blames those who had stolen Irish resources as the cause of Irish destitution, cheekily writing: "I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children." Swift is not subtle in who he thinks should take the blame here.

During famines, this cruel indifference has been a common trend throughout history. Academic Amartya Sen described in their seminal work “Poverty and Famines” (1981) how many famines are not about whether there is enough food but if people have access to that food, referred to as entitlements. Not everyone agrees with this theory, but when we consider the surplus of food globally, at some point down the supply chain, a market failure occurs with many of these famines. Whether we are talking about the USSR or the Bengali famine of '43, many people have died throughout history because those in power are unwilling to give up their entitlements, instead hoarding them for profit.

When I look at America, I worry that an artificial famine like this is well on its way and about to get much worse.

The state of American food insecurity

Americans hold a similar position to the Irish in the sense that much of this country is controlled by a narrow set of hands. When we look at homeownership, it's a common refrain to say that individuals own most homes, but the type of individual matters here. Over a third of American households rent. That number unsurprisingly increases for poorer Americans, who tend to be younger and more diverse and devote a significant amount of their incomes to rent. You could say their entitlement to housing is tenuous.

We can see a similar trend with farmland. While partnerships and family corporations own 110 million acres of cropland, over twice that is owned by "individuals." But again, the type of individual matters. The price of farmland has risen dramatically to thousands of dollars per acre (not the kind of investment a poor person could afford). The financial industry has rushed in to secure these assets, and now over 30% of farmland is owned by non-operators, who are landlords who rent out the land to be farmed. If you would like to read more about the history of the financialization of American farmland, I highly recommend Katy Keiffer's 2017 essay on the subject. You’ll be surprised by how little has changed.

It's not poor Americans who own this country's land — housing or farmland. It's the elite, the people who are either lucky or have the cash to burn, which makes the question of entitlements significant. Many tend to think of the Irish Potato Famine (and really all famines) as a switch, where all of a sudden, the Irish people were swamped with starvation and death, but poverty was rampant leading up to it. That was, in essence, the problem: they couldn't change their diet because other products were being exported out of the country. Colonial and capitalistic exploitation made them vulnerable to disruption in their food supply.

Likewise, when it comes to food security, many Americans are highly vulnerable. Wealth inequality is a frequent talking point, with the top 1% owning trillions more in wealth than the poorest 50%, but what is not mentioned enough is how many Americans are hungry and starving as a result. The USDA estimates that around 13.5 million households (roughly 34 million Americans) are food insecure, which according to their 2021 executive report, means that: "their ability to acquire adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources." They do not have entitlements to food.

That number is worse when we look at recent survey data. According to a 2022 Pew Research poll, about a fourth of parents struggle to afford food or housing. While we are not currently in the midst of a famine (though we might be in the middle of a recession), our agricultural market does not meet the needs of at least 10 percent of all households. That's a market failure we are just fine accepting.

The American diet is not as concentrated as the Irish diet in the 1840s, but much of our caloric intake comes from meats and grains, the latter of which has a lot of soy, wheat, corn, and rice. These four crops are essential to our diets. Many Americans also get these calories from highly processed foods with lots of added sugars because these products are cheap. With so many Americans struggling to feed their households, they will choose the more affordable option.

Given that an American under caste does not have resources — i.e., the entitlements — to most types of food, only the cheap ones land-owning producers wish to afford to us, what happens when there is a disruption to our food supply?

The answer is that people go hungry. We are already experiencing that partly with the recession and the war in Ukraine, but this decade is set up for a lot of potential shocks. Water supplies in the Colorado River and the Siera Snowpack are dwindling. Crop yields threaten to lower as temperatures rise. Harmful monocropping practices open food producers up to a bunch of vulnerabilities, including blight (history is not always the most original). And all of these shocks will only be worsened by a financialized farming system that does not prioritize feeding all people.

I don't know what will ultimately disrupt American food security, but if it remains this tenuous, we are primed for starvation on a mass scale.

Conclusion

I started this article with 1840s Ireland. I want to end with 1930s America. We think of the Great Depression as a crash in the stock market in 1929. Financiers had invested people's money in risky ventures that were not secure, but it was also an issue of food insecurity. Overfarming and overgrazing, a process that began well before the stock market crash (see the less talked about recession of 1921), created a situation that devasted the American heartland. Strong winds started to blow away the soil, which is why some began to refer to it as the Dust Bowl.

This created an economic situation where there was a food shortage and, at least initially, a lack of access to the entitlements that would have allowed people to shift their eating habits. The rich at the time had hoarded a third of all wealth, and much of the poor had no savings at all: a situation that is very similar to contemporary America. Like then, I am worried that decades of bad farming and food practices, not to mention rampant wealth inequality, will catch up with our society.

Now, the 1930s were also a period of massive health changes in sanitation and medicine that, combined with the increase in the safety net that came with the New Deal, mitigated the Great Depression's impact on our mortality rates. Death rates did not appear to rise due to starvation, but that outcome was the result of policy changes that were not inevitable. Only some societies push through to help the people they lead when there are disruptions to their food systems. For every New Deal, there is an Irish Famine.

Our food systems need to change. This is a simple statement unless you represent one of the stakeholders who want to keep things as is. The good news is that the solutions to this problem are simple outside a political context. Increasing entitlements to food involve subsidizing people's food allowances, decentralizing land ownership, and localizing food production. Tasks that are relatively easy to accomplish for a species as advanced as we are.

The question is, knowing that changing nothing can lead to a famine that will claim the lives of millions, will we continue to do nothing?

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About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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