Famine has haunted humans for most of their history.
In the days of the Pharaohs, whenever the Nile River failed to flood, Egypt starved. Joseph was called in and he organised stockpiling of grain for famine relief.
Even mighty Rome suffered famines – in 436 BC thousands of starving people threw themselves into the Tiber.
The cold Middle Ages in Europe were haunted by famines. In the 11th and 12th century, famines averaged one in 14 years. Even in England there were 22 recorded famines in the 13th century. In 1235, 20,000 people died in London and people ate horse flesh, bark and grass. There were great famines in India, Bengal, France, China and Russia.
In more recent times, man-made famines were more common in the Comrade Societies – some wit once remarked that "Soviet agriculture has just suffered its 23rd consecutive year of unseasonal weather". Some famines were deliberate policy such as Stalin's liquidation of the Kulaks in 1918 and his starvation of Ukraine in the 1932-33, while other dictators like Mao in China and Pol Pot in Cambodia caused famine with destructive collectivist farm policies.
Famines eased in Europe and North America from about 1860, partly because crops improved with warmer weather and also because of the great increases in land opened up in the Americas for farming and grazing.
But the biggest expansion in food production started with the invention of the coal-powered steam engine – the iron and steel smelted with coal, and the engines, generators and machines powered by coal and then oil, created a food and population explosion.
First were the steam-powered traction engines which pumped water and pulled iron ploughs, planters, harvesters, freight wagons and forest logs. Millions of crop-eating draught horses and oxen went to the butchers and no longer consumed half of the farm crops produced.
Then hunters armed with carbon-powered gunpowder decimated the wild herds of bison, antelope and deer grazing the prairies of the Americas, replacing them with barbed wire and beef cattle. (Most people today probably disapprove of such species slaughter; but it happened, and the food produced on that land now supports farmers, towns and millions of people.)
The cumbersome steam tractors were replaced by internal combustion engines burning kerosene, petrol and diesel.
The model T utility and Fordson tractors created another farming revolution with more food produced with fewer food-consuming draft animals and farm labourers.
Coal-powered trains and petrol-powered trucks and buses moved food, and motorised artillery, cavalry, baggage trains and ambulances moved armies. Millions of ever-hungry and ever-thirsty horses, mules and oxen were removed from the food and water queues.
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