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The Biology and Politics of Starvation

Butterly, John R., and Jack Shepherd

Publication Year: 2010

A timely and provocative look at the role political developments and the biology of nutrition play in world famine The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, recognizes the individual’s right “to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care.” More than sixty years later, despite the rapid advancement of science and technology and the proliferation of humanitarian efforts, inadequate nutrition remains a major health and social problem worldwide. Food insecurity—chronic malnutrition, persistent hunger, even starvation—still afflicts more than one in seven of the world’s people. As Butterly and Shepherd show, hunger is not the result of inadequate resources and technologies; rather, its cause is a lack of political will to ensure that all people have access to the food to which they are entitled—food distributed safely, fairly, and equitably. Using a cross-disciplinary approach rooted in both medicine and social science to address this crucial issue, the authors provide in-depth coverage of the biology of human nutrition; malnutrition and associated health-related factors; political theories of inadequate nutrition and famine; historical-political behaviors that have led to famine in the past; and the current political behaviors that cause hunger and malnutrition to remain a major health problem today.

Published by: Dartmouth College Press


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pp. c-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ii-v


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pp. vi-viii

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pp. ix-x

A book of this size and complexity is the work of many people. We want to thank some of them here. The origins of this book are found in a course we taught together with Lee Witters, MD, for four years at Dartmouth College. It was Lee’s creativity and enthusiasm that enriched...

Part I

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Prologue “Peasants Always Starve”

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pp. 3-10

In the middle of February 1973, a tattered band of about 1500 Ethiopian peasants appeared on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the country’s capital. Police halted them there and demanded an explanation. The peasant-farmers described drought and poor harvests around their villages in Wollo Province, some 200 miles north of Addis. They told of the...

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[1] The Silent Emergency

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pp. 11-26

The march of starving Ethiopian peasants on their capital in 1973 set off a series of connected events. What emerged was a new paradigm of the biology and politics of starvation. Five core characteristics of those events help to define that paradigm; they continue to reverberate today....

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[2] The Framework of Understanding

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pp. 27-40

In this chapter we create a framework for our analysis. Like academics everywhere we start with definitions, which we believe give us a common language and help us to identify and define a problem. Definitions, in turn, enable policy makers to bring institutional responses to address them. If...

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Lessons from the Great Irish Famine [1845–1850]

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pp. 41-52

The Great Irish Famine, as it is often called, is so deeply imbedded in Irish history—and that of North America—that extensive research into it and the resulting debates and controversies continue today. Entire university departments, centers, and institutes are devoted...

Part II

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[3] The Basics of Nutrition

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pp. 55-76

In the preceding chapters we learned about some important statistics regarding the avoidable suffering and millions of preventable deaths associated with chronic malnutrition. Sister Brigid Corrigan, medical director of Pastoral Activities and Services for people with AIDS, Dar es Salaam Archdiocese (Pasada), has said that statistics are people with the...

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[4] The Anatomy and Physiology of Nutrition

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pp. 77-95

The above quotes, although not meant to refer to biological systems, illustrate the following important points about biological processes: on a macroscopic, microscopic, and molecular level we are built exactly to perform the functions of life. The details of how this all...

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[5] Agriculture The Birth of Civilization . . .

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pp. 96-109

Why did agriculture develop? The sentiments of the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes stated above suggest that humans’ lives in our ancestral environment would be incentive enough to find a better way. The archeological record, however, suggests that...

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Lessons from the Great Irish Famine [1845–1850]

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pp. 110-120

Along with the politics of starvation, we have in the last three chapters examined the biology of nutrition and malnutrition. Here, with nutrition as our theme, we transpose that analysis to the Great Irish Famine, which offers several lessons about the central role that...

Part III

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[6] Responses on the Ground

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pp. 123-138

Our next two chapters are about “knowing,” and “responding” to what is known. How do we learn that chronic hunger, malnutrition, starvation, or famine is occurring? What are the response choices? How does relief food actually reach those in need? Are these responses influenced...

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[7] Responses Government and International

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pp. 139-156

Having looked at responses to the crisis of starvation by people on the ground, we now examine responses by governments and international agencies. We discuss the three forms of response—program, project, and emergency—but focus primarily on emergency food aid. This...

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[8] Responses to Malnutrition

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pp. 157-178

In chapters 3 and 4 we discussed the basics of the biochemistry and physiology of nutrition. We learned that the three macronutrients carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are generally treated similarly by the processes of digestion via chemical reactions that hydrolyze the bonds that...

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Lessons from the Great Irish Famine [1845–1850]

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pp. 179-186

There are subtle lessons to be found in comparing the Great Famine with colonial and postcolonial Africa. These include, as we have discussed in chapters 6 and 7, echoes from the Great Famine found in both the predisposing and catalytic factors that have caused the more recent starvations in Ethiopia, Malawi, and Niger. We also find some...

Part IV

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[9] Why Do Some People Starve?

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pp. 189-211

Is it possible that starvation and famine across sub-Saharan Africa may be caused by conditions that originate outside of Africa?
In this chapter we explore the possibility that there may be at least three outside causes of this continent’s recurring starvation and famines: persistent and widespread violence and conflict (funded and armed from outside), particularly over Africa’s natural resources; the impacts...

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[10] Why Do Some People Die?

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pp. 212-225

William Osler is considered to be the father of modern medicine. A humanist, teacher, and extremely astute clinician, he is credited (among other things) with the development of bedside teaching as a critical means of training new physicians. A man of great intelligence and insight, his meaning in the above quote is not intuitively obvious—one would...

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[11] The Biological Basisfor Political Behavior

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pp. 226-246

We began this book with a description of an event that determined how we view and think about famine—the Ethiopian famine of 1973. In embarking on our journey to simultaneously understand the biology and the politics of starvation, we ended that prologue with the observation that the physical sciences tell us what is, whereas the social...

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Lessons from the Great Irish Famine [1845–1850]

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pp. 247-250

Why did some Irish starve, and not others? We know that the failing structure of the Irish economy made the Irish peasant and laborers vulnerable to an environmental disaster like the potato blight. But Clarkson and Crawford at the Centre for Social Research in Belfast question the assumption that the Irish were “born” to famine. In the seventeenth...

Part V

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[12] The Right to Food

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pp. 253-267

Following the first World Food Conference in 1974, as detailed in chapter 1, the international donor community established an increasingly accurate system of satellite observations of the world’s arable land. Today we in the developed world know when and where food shortages, food...

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[13] Best Practices

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pp. 268-284

While researching this book we repeatedly encountered two fundamental realities: (1) the degree of human suffering from chronic hunger and disease is shameful, getting worse, and expanding to include more people; and (2) this suffering is avoidable. How might we reverse this trend? There are, in fact, some excellent ideas that may serve as models...

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[14] Prescription for Change

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pp. 285-290

As an end to our journey through the scientific and historical facts of hunger and starvation, let us consider where we have been, where we are going, what we can do, and what we should do....


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pp. 291-322


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pp. 323-338

E-ISBN-13: 9781584659501
E-ISBN-10: 1584659505
Print-ISBN-13: 9781584659266
Print-ISBN-10: 1584659262

Page Count: 356
Illustrations: 8 tables & charts.
Publication Year: 2010