What’s The Difference Between Famine And Hunger? A Food FAQ

When does food aid work? Hanna Barczyk for NPR hide caption

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Hanna Barczyk for NPR

When does food aid work?

Hanna Barczyk for NPR

Can eating insects help people survive a famine?

Are there new ways to help farmers water their crops when drought strikes?

Isn’t the basic hunger problem that there’s just not enough food to go around?

Those are some of the tough questions that you submitted in April for our monthly #CuriousGoat series.

We’d asked what you wanted to know about world hunger. You sent in so many good queries that we didn’t want to pick just one to answer, as we typically do. So here are some of the best — and our best answers.

The questions have been edited for length and clarity.


What’s the difference between hunger and famine? And why should we care about famines? Anjala Illemassene

“Hunger is a physiological sensation,” explains Tufts professor Daniel Maxwell, acting director of the university’s Feinstein International Center, based at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. It’s brought on by what is formally called “food insecurity,” which is just another way of saying a lack of nutritious food on a regular basis.

Famine is an extreme event leading to widespread death,” he says, and it’s typically about politics and violence, as much as it is about the overall availability of food.

Hunger exists everywhere, although it’s more common in areas with high levels of poverty. For a situation to be officially declared a famine by the United Nations, hunger needs to be concentrated and catastrophic. As we explained in February, there’s a five-stage scale used to rate food insecurity emergencies. To hit No. 5, which is “famine,” here are the criteria:

“At least 1 in 5 households now faces an extreme lack of food, more than 30 percent of the population is suffering from acute malnutrition, and at least two people out of every 10,000 are dying each day.”

In the 20th century, Maxwell notes, famines killed nearly 75 million people — although outright starvation was often not the direct cause. Instead, people in famines die from cholera, measles or other nasty diseases because severe malnutrition leads to compromised immune systems, he says.

Even people who manage to survive a famine are gravely affected, adds Stephen Were Omamo, deputy director of the World Food Programme. Severe malnutrition — which according to UNICEF affects an estimated 16 million children under the age of 5 worldwide — has health implications for life, particularly among kids affected during their first 1,000 days.

When does food aid work well, and when doesn’t it work? — Anna

It works best when people actually get it, and that’s not always so easy to pull off, says Tufts’ Maxwell, who’s co-author of the book, Food Aid After Fifty Years: Recasting Its Role.

Beans, lentils and other staples are great, he says, unless they’re sitting in a warehouse, waiting to get boxed, shipped, trucked and who knows what else. The clunky transportation process can take months to coordinate.

Now, though, food is often purchased and stored closer to where it’s needed, Maxwell says. But this approach can still be problematic, he says, if its distribution interferes with local markets.

That’s why the new form of food aid that’s really taken off is money. Cash can be transmitted digitally rather than airdropped or shipped. “It allows us to move much more quickly with a tailored response,” WFP’s Omamo says. Plus, buying power gives people the chance to pick and choose what they need, while generating economic activity.

Omamo says cash-based transfers — a term that includes all cash transfers and vouchers, both physical and digital — accounted for less than 1 percent of the food assistance WFP delivered in 2009. Now it’s close to 20 percent (with a value of about $1 billion a year).

Can you address population growth in relation to hunger and famine? –Nadia G.

To do that, we need to discuss Thomas Robert Malthus, an English economist and scholar born in 1766. One idea Malthus laid out in his most influential paper, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” was that the world population continues to grow exponentially, and the food supply can’t possibly keep up. If that’s true, any day now, we should have too little food for too many people.

It’s a concept called the Malthusian theory of population.

Although the theory has continued to circulate, it’s been disproved, Omamo of WFP says. Agricultural innovation has helped produce much more food than Malthus ever expected, and population growth is actually showing signs of slowing.

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#CuriousGoat is a monthly series from Goats and Soda that asks our audience to share a question on a special topic about global health and development.

“The answer is not, ‘More people bad,’ ” Omamo adds. “There isn’t a direct link.”

Consider the current state of the world: There are plenty of calories to sustain all 7.5 billion of us, but they’r not distributed evenly. Hundreds of millions of people go to bed hungry each night. That’s not to say Omamo isn’t worried about the future, and particularly the effects of climate change. If we don’t change how we use energy, Omamo says, hunger will become an even bigger challenge.

There are some regions that cannot support the population that lives there. What’s the point in providing food aid to an unsustainable population?Anonymous

We’re going to assume you meant drylands, or places without much water. There’s a major problem with writing them off, says Bilal Butt, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment in Ann Arbor. “They’re almost half of the world’s surface area,” he says. They’re home to hundreds of millions of people, and have supported livestock and people for thousands of years.

What’s more, Butt adds, drylands have generally been quite sustainable, especially for nomadic herders. That they move from place to place “has been looked at as outdated and irrational,” Butt says. “But it could not be further from the truth.” They must stay mobile to find forage and water because resources are distributed unevenly in drylands. Because of this strategy, they’re not continually degrading one patch of land by grazing on it.

Over the years, nomadic groups have developed various strategies for survival in tough conditions, Butt says. One example he offers is from Kenya, where groups often keep a diverse group of livestock, each with separate feeding strategies. Cows eat differently than sheep, goats and camels, Butt says, so to have a mix is an adaptation to drylands. In most circumstances, at least some of your animals will find enough grub to survive. (Here is a fascinating story fromBeef Magazine extolling the virtues of multispecies grazing.)

This technique relies on widespread mobility, and being able to seek out new places to live. So as more land has been developed and taken away from grazing, and conservation areas have banned livestock, that’s limited options. That’s why, Butt says, it’s common to see livestock nibbling on grass in downtown Nairobi. The animals have been there much longer than the cars and buildings. The name of that city comes from the Maasai “cold water,” he explains, because it’s historically been a place that the Maasai would water their livestock.

The big problems arrive when a drought strikes, Butt says, and that’s when you’re likely to see images of crowded displaced persons or refugee camps, where people flee not only to escape conflict but also to find food and water during a drought. What you can’t tell from looking at their faces, Butt notes, is that they’ve often traveled from hundreds of miles away. “It’s all too easy to dehumanize people in this process,” he adds. “But they’re not careless, and unsustainably using the land.”

Instead, they’re dealing with droughts that in recent years have increased in frequency and intensity. “Then you ask yourself why,” Butt says. “Some would speculate that this [increase in droughts] is a climate change signature. The people contributing the least to climate change are being affected the most.”

What are some of the boldest, most sustainable ways help farmers water their crops in drought-stricken areas? — Karen Teber

Pose this question to Robert Opp, director of the World Food Programme’s innovation division, and he’ll start talking enthusiastically about Styrofoam with holes poked into it and plastic trays.

It may not sound like much. But use the holes to prop up plants, and let the roots soak in a water/nutrient mix in those trays, and you’ve got a hydroponic garden. Opp believes the soilless technique has the potential to change how people cultivate crops, particularly in the developing world. “You can grow food with 90 percent less water and 75 percent less space,” he says.

WFP has sent starter hydroponic kits that cost $25 to urban households in Peru, where they face a number of the same constraints as people living in conflict zones. (Namely, no space.) And it’s been helping them grow leafy greens in about 4 to 6 weeks that they can serve to their families and sell to make money. Hydroponics are also being tested with a refugee population in Algeria that was displaced 40 years ago because of conflict in the Western Sahara. “They didn’t want vegetables for themselves,” Opp explains, since that’s not typically a part of their diet. But they’ve grown barley shoots to feed their goats, which then produce milk for the people to consume.

The latest twist is combining hydroponics with food computers, which are units about half the size of a dishwasher and that boast a completely controlled environment, including LED lighting and automated nutrient release. Basically, they allow researchers to create any climate imaginable. WFP has teamed up with MIT and other partners to test a bunch of these computers in Jordan and determine how playing with variables can translate into the highest yield possible for crops.

Can eating insects help people during a famine? — Anonymous

On a small scale, the answer is yes, according to Patrick Durst, senior forestry officer for Asia and the Pacific at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In various times of famine, he says, people have hunted insects for sustenance. “They are tough and can survive in harsh conditions. When crops die, there are still insects around that people are eating,” he says. They can be nutritious sources of protein and fat. And they can be delicious — hence, why edible insects are a “preferred food” for many people around the world.

So how about shipping giant bags of bugs to starving people in famines?

Durst sees several potential hurdles to this idea. For starters, you’d need to produce a lot more bugs, and the recipients would have to want to eat them.

Maybe that’d be more likely in the form of insect-fortified flour, he says, which could be an extra nutritious alternative to the normal stuff. “There’s no reason that can’t be part of the arsenal, but we have a long way to go,” says Durst, who explains that more research is needed into shelf life and allergic reactions. (Apparently, people who have shellfish allergies often have the same problems with insects.)

Anyway, Durst is not saying we can’t use insects to fight famine worldwide. It’s just not likely anytime soon.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this #CuriousGoat.

Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer in Florence, Italy. She was previously a reporter and fitness columnist for The Washington Post.

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