June 29, 2017 | By Alesha Black

Famine Leaves a Mark – And It Isn’t How You Think

Women wait in line during a UNICEF supported mobile health clinic in the village of Rubkuai, Unity State, South Sudan. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

In the worst humanitarian crisis in seven decades, 20 million people face famine in South Sudan, northeast Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen. Alesha Black, director of the Council's Global Food and Agriculture Program, reflects on the long-term implications of famine, and she also stopped by this week's Deep Dish to talk about the causes and reactions to the current international emergency. Check out her piece and the podcast below. 

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Hunger leaves a scar. Helping in a time of hunger leaves an impression.

LEGACY noun leg·a·cy \ˈle-gə-sē\
something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past

The short-term consequences of hunger are familiar to all of us: brain fog, lethargy, irritability. And we all know that when pushed to the limit, the stakes for human life and health get higher, even if we haven’t experienced such limits. But did you know that hunger is so insidious that its fingerprints can be seen in your DNA? On the DNA of your children and grandchildren? Hunger actually leaves a lasting mark. During the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944-45, families faced starvation conditions, sometimes subsisting on as little as 500 calories a day, as a result of a German blockade intended to bring communities to their knees in the final days of World War II. Using food as a weapon—whether in the Netherlands in the 1940s, or today in Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan—is unfortunately nothing new. But various features of that tragic situation in the Netherlands have allowed for academic study of affected families and their descendants, which is one of the reasons we know about the long-term impacts of hunger.

The harshest and most visible effects of the Dutch Hunger Winter, of course, were felt by pregnant mothers and their newborns. Infants born to mothers who had suffered the famine conditions, especially if these conditions occurred during pregnancy, were more likely to be born with defects, cognitive impairment, and low birth weight. For mothers who were in the earliest gestation period during the famine, their offspring carried epigenetic markers that tell the story of this suffering: their DNA is the same but the gene expression is changed. In the case of the Dutch Hunger Winter families, these changes resulted in increased risk of developing other negative health outcomes such as coronary heart disease, obesity in adulthood, and schizophrenia. Early evidence also suggests that these changes to your genes can also be passed on as increased risk to your children—meaning the grandchildren of those originally affected could suffer some consequences.

Combine that with a separate body of work that shows the damaging effects of poverty on cognitive function and decision making, and you realize people have a truly asymmetrical starting point when it comes to opportunity around the globe. For example, when one considers the nearly constant food insecurity, conflict, and recent famine suffered by South Sudan (1998) or Somalia (2011), it is heartbreaking to consider the multiple effects across the population of adults, adolescents, young children this has caused. While some scars are visible, we know there are very likely invisible fingerprints of hunger on the genes of many—like the scars on tree rings that tell us there was once a catastrophic fire.

And yet there can be a new legacy as actions today are perpetually rewriting the story. The short-term effects of ending hunger are swift: A full stomach can help individuals taking medication for TB or HIV keep the medicine down. A school child with a full stomach is immediately more prepared to learn and achieve in school—whatever their individual academic potential may be. A young person relieved from the desperation of hunger can more easily choose to turn away from recruitment into a life of violence. In the long-term, these intergenerational scars and ties can be weakened and broken altogether, resulting in better health, individual potential, and more powerful and stable economies.

The modern day United States has never experienced a famine, but many of the grandparents and great-grandparents of its diverse population may have survived one. A quick scroll through Wikipedia’s ‘Famines of the 21st Century’ may surprise you; perhaps your family emigrated to escape a famine. The genes of many of us likely tell the haunting stories of hunger seasons long past; perhaps even some of our own health maladies today are linked to these scars. If your genes tell a kinder story, you are the recipient and result of a precious intergenerational gift—a well-nourished family tree.

The United States can be proud that in the case of the Dutch Hunter Winter, the US Army Air Forces broke the famine alongside the British Royal Airforce and the Royal Canadian Air Force by delivering food via ‘mercy flights’. That leaves a mark too; an impression. In the decades since then, the United States, joined by a growing list of allies against hunger, has stepped forward to break famines or help avert them altogether through short-term assistance or long-term agricultural development. In the face of today’s devastating famine crisis, many leaders domestically and internationally are rightly calling for another strong US and global response. Repeated over and over, thousands of ‘impressions’ go further and create a reputation. And when famines are a thing of history books—and it will happen—that’s the stuff of legacy.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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