Friday, June 4, 2010

What if the Famine hadn't happened?

On an earlier post about Niger's high population growth rates, a reader argued that Niger's food crisis is caused not by population growth, but by "oligopoly and grain cartels" controlling the food supply.

I was reminded of debates about Ireland's Great Famine of the 1840s, when the potato crop failed and around one million people died. Many blamed British rule for the disaster. One particular concern was that food was being exported from Ireland even while people were starving.

Yet Ireland in the decades leading up to the famine was experiencing unsustainable growth. It is hard to get good data from the period, but Gapminder gives us some estimates. I will compare Ireland's population growth with that of the UK. (Numbers for Ireland are estimates for the Republic of Ireland; numbers for UK are estimates including present day Northern Ireland.)

1604 Ireland: 737,861
1604 UK: 5,527,939

1704 Ireland: 1,492,466 (102.3% increase)
1704 UK: 7,495,000 (35.6% increase)

1804 Ireland: 4,561,550 (206% increase)
1804 UK: 14,987,584 (100% increase)

1845 Ireland: 6,045,905 (32.54% increase)
1845 UK: 21,994,095 (46.7% increase)

A Gapminder graph comparing the two countries' population growth from 1604 to 2008 looks like this:

So there was extremely rapid population growth in Ireland before the famine, although after around 1820 UK began to accelerate its own growth, ending the convergence of populations.

Clearly population growth in itself is not a famine risk. UK kept growing and now has food security. Unlike industrial Britain, however, much of Ireland was desperately poor in this period, with large proportions of the population relying directly on the potato crop. Population growth itself is not the problem, but population growth in an agricultural, subsistence-farming society is a grave concern indeed. (Note that in Niger, 90% of the labour force is involved in agriculture today, much of it subsistence farming.)

The Great Famine is the most obvious phenomenon on the above graph, causing a deep dip in Ireland's population which, thanks largely to emigration, has yet to recover.

But supposing the British had blocked exports and made a greater effort to stave off starvation. They did this in 1782, when bad weather coincided with a foreign economic slump to cause a food shortage in Ireland. Food exports were controlled and public funds were provided to feed thousands of people every day. Famine was avoided.

Great! But Ireland's population continued to soar, almost doubling by the time the potatoes failed in 1845, and pressure on the land for food became worse. Farms were subdivided and each generation had less area to work than the last. Avoiding famine in 1782 had saved lives, but not fixed a long-term problem. I wonder how Ireland would have fared if the 1840s famine was also avoided. Would the great emigration wave have kicked in with such force? Or would the country have continued growing uncontrollably, only to face an even greater collapse some time in the future?


  1. Hi there... Thanks for stopping by CB. I'll be following you here and on Twitter as well. Hope to *see* you around. Are you on fb?

  2. Grand! I'm on Facebook indeed though I tend to keep it for friends and family. I found your blog through Chris Cork (who posted it on fb), if he's a friend of yours, you'll find me :)


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