Today's Food Riots and the Irish Famine


“During Ireland’s famine of 1846-7, which killed a million people, large landowners routinely exported food to Britain as poor peasants dropped all around them. Substitute Ireland for developing countries, large landowners for transnational corporations, and Britain for the Western world, and little has changed. Food is still being exported from countries where there is gross hunger and people are dropping as a result”.
John Madeley, Hungry for Trade- How the poor pay for Free Trade, Zed Books 2000, p43

Over 150 years later, the Great Irish Famine is remembered world wide as one of the most brutal in human history. The experience of this calamity has left deep feelings of solidarity with peoples who face similar famines in the modern age, with many ordinary Irish people contributing what they can to the emergency appeals of NGOs like Concern, Goal or Trocaire. There are many similarities between what happened in Ireland and what is happening now in the Global South, with many of the myths used to justify or ignore the suffering of the Irish peasantry finding currency in modern political discourse. However, there are also important differences with modern famines that must be explored to understand why hunger continues to kill poor people in a world of plenty.

At the turn of the millennium, 790 million people did not have food security. By and large most of these people were living in the Global South, the so-called “Third World”. “ South Asia contained 283.9 million hungry people, East and Southeast Asia 241.6 million, Sub-Saharan Africa 179.6 million, Latin America 53.4 million AND the Near East and North Africa 32.9 million. Over 20,000 people a day are dying from the effects of hunger.” John Madeley, Hungry for Trade- p26.

Three years later, this situation had worsened. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations published the “State of Food Insecurity in the World 2003” report in December of that year, to measure “progress towards the World Food Summit and Millennium Development Goals”. It estimated that today around 842 million people are suffering chronic hunger. FAO director-general Jacques Diouf writes in the report, "Why have we allowed hundreds of millions of people to go hungry in a world that produces more than enough food for every woman, man and child? Bluntly stated, the problem is not so much a lack of food as a lack of political will." (The FAO report is available HERE )

Indeed, this most striking similarity between the Irish famine and modern famines is that both take place in a world of plenty, and that it is not the lack of food that kills people but its unequal and unjust distribution. One of the most powerful condemnations of the capitalist economic system, then and now, is that it would rather dump food to keep prices and profits high, than give it to hungry people. Rather than see itself on trial, this economic system encourages certain myths to explain away famine, which were active in 1847 as much as they were today. The major ones worth focussing on are that famines are caused by
(a) natural disasters,
(b) lack of adequate food supply,
(c) over population and
(d) lack of economic development due to “corruption” or “Native backwardness”.

(a) Famine as a Natural Disaster

An important difference between the Irish and modern famines lies in the natural factors that brought about the crisis. In 1845-1852, this was the Potato Blight, the fungus Phytophthora infestans which wiped out the staple food crop not only in Ireland, but in Canada, Cornwall, Devon and many other countries. In modern times, different natural factors such as drought are supposedly the root cause. Whatever the natural causes, none of these factors can adequately explain why there was not mass starvation in Cornwall or Canada, or why drought is a regular occurrence in the South-western United States yet there are no major famines there. Yet drought in the Sahel region of Africa causes huge human suffering.

Every year in the West, old people and the homeless die during the winter of hypothermia, yet we do not blame the weather alone for causing these deaths. We realise that other factors such as housing, poverty and the ability to pay gas, electricity or heating bills are a major contributing factor. We look for social explanations to explain these deaths- the same logic should apply in the Global South. Drought is not new to the region but the experience of famine on its present scale is.

“Throughout human history, human societies have worked to protect themselves against the vagaries of nature. Especially in large areas of Africa, periodic droughts have always challenged human survival. Precautions against their consequences have invariably been part of human culture” World Hunger: 12 Myths, Francis Lappe and Joseph Collins, Earthscan 1988, p17

Drought impacts differently on different regions, depending on the resources available. A satellite photograph taken of the Sahel in 1975 showed a rich island of arable land surrounded by drought. During the Sudanese famine of 1985, huge amounts of water went to service the Gezira cotton plantation. Traditionally the millet granaries of the Sahel region were designed to hold grain for four years and grain was only eaten in the third year of storage. This food reserve protected the population against the dangers of climatic change. Yet the impact of Western Imperialism changed the economies of this region, persisting economically after formal political independence was achieved.

Doctor Tewolde Egziabher of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority claims
“the West has helped to prevent Ethiopia becoming self sufficient in food. Western governments and international financial institutions have insisted that the private sector must control the food supply. They have prevented the government building granaries and food depots that could store grain from one year to the next.” Socialist Worker (UK), Jan 5th 2004 (

The impact of economic imperialism vastly exacerbated the role of natural factors such as drought or blight in causing famine. Ireland was one of the first nations colonised by Britain since 1169. The British Empire in Ireland developed its strategies that it would later use in the Global South- with various plantations removing land from tribal or clan control, replacing the ownership of land under British feudal system. By the time of Irish Famine, most Irish land was owned by a small class of Landlords, many absentee, living in Britain. The bulk of rural peasantry was forced to rent small holdings at huge cost-

“Karl Marx estimated that in 1836, £7 million was sent abroad to absentee landlords. As late as 1872, 774 landlords owned 10 million acres in Ireland-half the total surface of the country”-
Kieran Allen, Is Southern Ireland a Neo Colony? (Bookmarks Ireland, 1990), p12.

The new economic system forced poor farmers to grow “cash crops” to pay for land rent- making them artificially dependent on one major subsistence crop- the potato was cheap, nutritious and abundant. Here we see parallels with famines of the modern era- many nations now experiencing hunger are using huge tracts of arable land to grow cash crops such as cotton, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, and sugar for sale in the global market, to help pay IMF/World Bank loans. During the famine in Senegal, 55% of the arable land was growing peanuts for export. The economy of Sudan was forced by British imperialism to produce coffee, tea and cotton for export on its most arable land. Farmers had to pay taxes in cash, forcing them to work on government farms and huge agricultural schemes like the two million acre cotton plantation scheme in Gezira, the most arable land in Sudan where the Blue and White Nile meet. After independence from Britain in 1956, the scheme was continued to provide hard currency to help service its debt. The Act of Union in 1800 imposed huge taxes on Ireland which had to pay two-seventeenths the cost of maintaining the Empire- the impoverished colony was supposed to pay tax on equal basis with Britain.

“Throughout the 19th Century, tax per head in Ireland increased by 140 per cent while it decreased by 25% in Britain”- K Allen, p12, Is Southern Ireland a Neo Colony?

In Ireland, huge resources went to pay absentee landlords their rent, in the Sudan huge resources went to pay IMF/World Bank debts, and in both the best land was used to produce cash crops for export, leaving the poorest people dangerously reliant on staple crops such as potato, rice or millet. If drought or disease strikes these crops, thousands will starve amidst plenty. Which leads to the second myth-

(b) There’s not enough food

During the famine Ireland was an exporter of food. John Mitchell, the Young Irelander revolutionary, claimed that “During all the famine years Ireland was actually producing enough food, wool and flax to clothe not nine but eighteen million people, yet a ship sailing into a port with a cargo of famine relief grain was sure to meet six ships sailing out with the same cargo”. The Act of Union in 1800 transformed the Irish economy, making it an agricultural supplier for the British Empire. The Corn Laws created a virtual monopoly within the empire for Irish corn-

“In 1803, Ireland exported 146,000 barrels of wheat and 439,000 barrels of corn. By 1822 this had risen to 776,000 and 1,948,000 barrels respectively”
D A Chart, An Economic History of Ireland (Talbot Press, Dublin) p90

As the famine took hold, food continued to leave for Britain.
“In the three months up to 5 February 1846, 258,000 quarters of wheat and 701,000 hundredweight of barley, worth about a million pounds had left with over a million quarters of oats and oatmeal. The head of the British treasury, Charles Trevelyan, refused to allow grain to be used as relief because it would destabilise the price” -
Mark O Brien, Hope Amidst the Horror- the Socialist Answer to World Hunger, Socialist Workers Party 1992, p15.

Dr Abdullah El-Tom, in his paper Towards the Concept of Famine Criminals finds the same pattern at work in the modern famines of Africa- “The mid 1980s famine of Africa was not caused by food shortage as such either. At the very time Bob Geldof and his other Band Aid associates were airlifting food to the Sudan, Sudanese grain was being exported to feed the Saudi camel industry”. He argues that many African governments had at their disposal enough grain to feed the starving-
“Had the Sudanese government recirculated only 2.5% of its local grain production, famine would have been averted. Estimates for other African countries are higher, running at seven to eight per cent for Kenya and Tanzania”.


Thomas Malthus, the reactionary Scottish preacher, argued that population growth outstripped exponentially the ability of producers to increase food supply, and that famine was a necessary natural process of eliminating overpopulation. Malthus wrote about Ireland that “in order to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a greater part of its people should be swept from the soil”. Christine Kineally, This Great Calamity, p8.

Ireland in 1840 had over 8 million people, by the Census of 1851 this had fallen by 2 million (1 Million deaths due to starvation and disease, 1 million emigrated). One major difference between the Irish famine and modern famines is the sheer number of people killed- one eighth of the population died. By comparison, the Sahel famine of 1973 killed perhaps one hundred thousand in an area inhabited by twenty-five million. In Ethiopia in 1972-4 about two hundred thousand are held to have died out of a population of twenty-seven million. Ireland’s Famine is called Great for a reason. Another major difference was the size of the Diaspora fleeing the country to Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States. Hundreds of thousands continued to leave Ireland every year after 1847, finding new homes in the slums of New York or London.

Modern immigration controls preclude the poor of the Global South this ability to emigrate to richer lands. Very few Ethiopians or Sudanese were offered refuge by the Irish government during their famines. Famine, whether in Ireland or in the Global South, predominantly impacts on rural areas. Few people on the eastern seaboard surrounding Dublin died in 1847, yet whole villages in Mayo were wiped out. In the Sudan, the urban population of Khartoum largely survived whilst poor peasants in the rural provinces starved.

“Paradoxically, famines take place in the countryside, where people do produce, or could produce food. Though towns may experience shortages and rationing, they are generally exempt from outright famine. Because city people are concentrated and therefore potentially dangerous, they are taken care of by the State, which is anxious to prevent upheavals and preserve its own power”- Susan George, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin 1990, p52

In modern times we are encouraged to think of the Global South as overpopulated, with huge cities such as Mexico City or Sao Paolo bursting at the seams. However, for the Malthuses of this world, the world always seems over populated with poor people of colour rather than Scottish preachers or British Imperialists! If population density is the cause of starvation, how come it’s in the Sudan with 16 people per square kilometre and not the Netherlands with 363 per square kilometre? Population size has no relevance whatever in explaining hunger- behind the ideology of over population lie some deeply racist assumptions- During the 19th century, British Imperialism used racist ideas to justify its colonisation of Ireland, India, and Africa. At the time of the Irish famine, many cartoons depicted Irish as simian, ape like creatures, drunken and violent, dressed in ragged clothes, with a propensity for laziness, brutality and ignorance. (Many of these have been documented by Liz Davis in her excellent book- Ireland, the Propaganda War.)

Social Darwinists created racists ideas that whites were superior to black people, and that different races had innate, genetic characteristics. Imperialism needed to depict the people it colonised as “savage”- the role of the Imperialists was to take up “the White man’s burden” and help civilise the natives. Here, the Irish can be blamed for their lack of development rather than an economic system that structurally imposed underdevelopment, and dismantled any independent Irish economic development. The same process happened when Europeans colonised the Global South.

(d) Lack of Development due to native backwardness or “corruption”

Nowadays such crude racism is politically unacceptable in much of Western political discourse, yet the process of blaming the victim for the crime continues. Famines continue to happen in the Global South because they are now ruled by corrupt national leaders whose policies have led to under development. One major difference between the 1847 famine and modern famines is the absence of significant conflict or war in Ireland in the 1840s.

“Of the 31 drought affected countries in Sub Saharan Africa in the 1980s, only five have experienced famine. Each has occurred in the context of war: Mozambique, Angola, Sudan, Chad and Ethiopia” (Frances Lappe et al, World Hunger: 12 Myths, p17.)

To this we can now add Somalia- however, this ignores the historical role that imperialism played in politically destabilising and economically retarding the development of these nations before independence. In the 20th century many nationalist movements have succeeded in driving out colonial imperialism, but then have been forced to participate in unfair terms with the global economic system. This has led to what is referred to as “Dependency”, with a Global economic core and periphery. The Core nations ( usually the old mother countries of Empire) sell industrial goods and commodities, whilst the Periphery nations (the ex colonies, now economic “neo colonies”) provide raw materials at rock bottom prices, prevented by tariffs from selling their own manufactured goods.

Corrupt nationalist politicians form what is called a “Comprador class”- the success of nationalism creates a new bourgeoisie within its own country, who continue to exploit the urban and rural poor with no real interest in development. The Brasilian sociologist F H Carduso claims that this led to the development of “Dependent capitalism” in the Global South. The geographic location of Ireland is more problematic, and here again lies a major difference with modern famines. By and large, the nations that neighbour societies experiencing famine now are poor themselves- in contrast, Ireland was supposedly part of the Core- the United Kingdom of Great Britain AND Ireland.

Communications and distance may be an excuse used by modern Famine Criminals- yet one million people starved only a few hundred miles west of the metropolis of London, then the centre of the most powerful economic Empire the world had ever seen. Racist myths of “lazy, ignorant savages” justifying underdevelopment mask the role of Imperialism in retarding and stopping the emergence of native Irish industry. In the 1790s, Ireland’s population and economic potential rivalled Britain’s- the massive but unsuccessful revolution of 1798 wanted to repeat the example of the American and French revolutions. The leaders of the Revolutions wanted independent economic development in the former colonies. After 1798, the British Empire had huge fears of another rebellion- there followed a deliberate economic policy of de industrialisation (except in “Loyal” areas following plantation in Ulster) formulated by the Act of Union in 1800. Massively expanding British economy was allowed to destroy the Irish economy which lacked the protection of its own state

The Dublin Parliament was abolished and tariffs on imports were reduced to 10%. The revolutionary Wolfe Tone observed that “England chokes our rising commerce at every turn”. In 1825, three million yards of woollen cloth were imported, by 1835 this had risen to eight million. By 1838, the Irish woollen Industry was only supplying 14% of its own domestic market.
L M Cullen, The Economic History of Ireland since 1600 (Batsford, London 1972), p106.

After the famine, people were replaced by livestock. “The Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1847 saw a shift towards pasture. Ireland became a huge cattle ranch- by 1903, 81% of the country was under pasture. Kieran Allen, Is Southern Ireland a Neo-Colony?, p12.

So, rather than Ireland’s underdevelopment being due to its population innate laziness or lack of a Protestant work ethic, it was caused by economic and political policies planned to keep it as an agricultural storehouse. Colonial powers enacted these same policies in the Global South, continuing to exclude commodities from their markets by prohibitive tariffs on Southern products. The role of these economies was to continue to provide the raw materials, leading to what was called “the development of underdevelopment” by Andre Gunder Frank in his seminal work Latin America, Underdevelopment or Revolution?

Famine, Globalisation and Resistance

Perhaps the most distressing similarity between the Irish and modern famines is the similar economic orthodoxy used to justify economic policies whilst people starve. In the 1840s, British politicians followed the laissez-faire model of classical political economy, as advanced by Adam Smith. This called for no interference or regulation of the free market, which would be guided by the “invisible hand” of economics through supply and demand. During the Irish Famine, the first editor of The Economist, James Wilson, answered Irish pleas for public assistance with the claim that ‘it is no man’s business to provide for another’. He asserted that official intervention would shift resources from the more to the less deserving, since ‘if left to the natural law of distribution, those who deserved more would obtain it’. (BBC British History Timelines- at

150 years later and these economic ideas are being revived by the Neo-Liberal governments of the West and their allies in the economic and political elites of the Global South. The landlords have been replaced by corporate led globalisation and the increased power of multinational companies. Yet throughout the world we have seen the emergence of a powerful movement for Global Justice, often called the anti globalisation or anti capitalist movement. Central to this movement’s demands are fair trade between North and South, the cancellation and abolition of unjust Debt and the disbandment of the discredited Bretton Woods institutions- the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank

There is a myth that hungry people are too weak to change things, that they cannot rise up and change an unjust system. However, the Great Irish Famine created a powerful feeling of injustice that helped to fuel the growing Irish revolutionary movement. Famines, then as now, produce anger and resistance to Famine Criminals. There has always been a realisation by a minority that famines are caused by capitalist or imperialist economic systems- this leads them to search for political, economic and social alternatives. In Ireland, this saw the rise of a nationalist movement, with an ideology of radical republicanism influenced by the French and American Revolutions. Central to its beliefs were the need for independent development and a just redistribution of land.

During the Irish famine there were many undocumented acts of resistance to the Famine Criminals. “Hundreds marched to the House of Lord Sligo in Westport, County Mayo. In Macroom and Killarney protests were held. Troops were sent to protect fields of crops and ports. Riots occurred outside food depots, troops were used to assist evictions. Seven landlords were shot ... Notices appeared urging people not to pay rent, while many landlords received threatening letters”.- The Irish Famine, Vasco Purser, July 1995, Socialist Workers Party pamphlet, p20.

One year after the Famine, revolutions ignited across Europe, finding Irish expression in the Young Ireland movement. One of its leaders, James Fintan Lawlor stressed the importance of the land question- “To him, national independence was an abstract idea which by itself would never fire the rural masses of Ireland. What mattered to him were the immediate evils of the land system- the high rents, the lack of security”-
T W Moody & F X Martin, the Course of Irish History, Mercier Press 1967, p262

He was to inspire Michael Davitt, the Chartist and socialist activist who led the Irish Land League in the “Land War” of the 1880s. The League was based around the Three F’s- fair rent, fixity of tenure, and freedom of sale, and used the tactic of the Boycott amongst its political weapons. “Thirty years later a series of bad harvests and an agricultural slump in 1879 threatened many with another famine. This time the Land League were able to provide sufficient leadership to the protest movements and the Government was forced to introduce a Land Act”.- Vasco Purser, The Irish Famine, p20

Dr Abdullah El-Tom, in his paper Towards the Concept of Famine Criminals notes similar movements of resistance in Africa. “In 1985, Numeiri of Sudan was ousted from power through a popular uprising led by his starving population. Eleven other governments in Sub-Saharan Africa also lost power following the mid 80s African famine”. Millions of ordinary people in the West want an end to the exploitation and impoverishment of their brothers and sisters in the Global South- the Jubilee 2000 campaign to abolish “Third World” debt has the biggest petition in human history with over 40 million signatures. The US has already spent nearly $100 billion on the war in Iraq. It has also spent around $30 billion on "homeland security". Yet, according to the UN, just $80 billion a year would provide universal access to basic social services, give everyone clean water and reduce poverty enough to eliminate malnutrition. The Indian Eco-feminist, Vandana Shiva has argued that “Globalisation of food markets is an instant strategy for creating hunger”. “The export of flowers took off in a number of African countries in the late 1990s, again raising questions about the impact on food security. In Kenya, for example, there has been a big expansion in horticulture, producing flowers for export on land around lake Naivasha that was previously ranching land and small farms. Kenya is already short of land for producing food, and there are conflicts between the schemes and Maasai cattle owners, who claim the land as theirs” p55 John Madeley, Hungry for Trade

Where there is a choice between using land to feed the people who live there or growing flowers for export, we must choose the first. The 21st century needs a global Land League, like the Movementa de les Trabjadores Sans Terra in Brasil (The Movement of the Landless Workers). Debts to the IMF and World Bank should be cancelled, and a fairer price for the Global South’s commodities paid. These are the aims of the Global Justice Movement, the hope amidst the horror. Famine is not a natural disaster, but a human made process. If we are to stop it once and for all, we will need an international movement in both the Global North and South. This is one final major difference from the Irish famine- a nationalist revolution in an age of globalisation would merely replace the local elite. “Another World is Possible”, but only with a renewed politics of internationalism.


John Madeley, Hungry for Trade, Zed Books London 2000
T W Moody & F X Martin, the Course of Irish History, Mercier Press 1967
Dr Abdullah El-Tom, class handout paper Towards the Concept of Famine Criminals
The Irish Famine, Vasco Purser, July 1995, Socialist Workers Party
British History Timelines- at
M Cullen, The Economic History of Ireland since 1600 (Batsford, London 1972)
Susan George, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin 1990
M O Brien, Hope Amidst the Horror- the Socialist Answer to World Hunger, SWP 92
Kieran Allen, Is Southern Ireland a Neo Colony? (Bookmarks Ireland, 1990)
World Hunger: 12 Myths, Francis Lappe and Joseph Collins, Earthscan 1988
D A Chart, An Economic History of Ireland (Talbot Press, Dublin
FAO report 2003


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