Cornhusker Economics

By Wes Peterson

The Food and Agriculture Organization defines hunger as “an uncomfortable or painful physical sensation caused by insufficient consumption of dietary energy.” Persistent hunger is also known as food insecurity defined as a “lack of regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life” (FAO 2024). Acute and persistent hunger or food insecurity can eventually lead to death from starvation but even in their milder forms, these deficiencies result in serious health problems. According to the World Food Program (2024a), more than 300 million people—only a little less than the entire population of the United States—currently face severe food insecurity, 42 million at “emergency” levels of hunger, with armed conflict being the main reason for insufficient access to food.  

It might be thought that food insecurity is caused primarily by insufficient food availability as a result of weather-related declines in agricultural output. It is obviously true that food-insecure individuals lack access to adequate amounts of food, but this situation can arise even when food availability has not fallen. The classic example of such a state of affairs is the Irish potato famine of the late 1840s during which substantial quantities of wheat, barley, and other foodstuffs were exported to England while Irish peasant farmers starved. As explained by Amartya Sen (1984), Ireland was an English colony at that time and the exported food belonged to English landlords managing their Irish estates. The Irish were “entitled” to the potatoes they harvested from their plots of land but not to the grain and other foodstuffs from the English estates. When their potatoes rotted they either starved or were forced to emigrate despite the fact that there was plenty of other food available in the country. Famines and persistent food insecurity have frequently occurred in places where food availability has not declined (Sen 1984).  


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