Workshop: Societal responses to drops in food supply

RHN 66/2016 | Event

4-5 November 2016, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Societal responses to drops in food supply

Societies can respond to drops in food supply in a variety of ways. Of course, responses to acute food shortages, their backgrounds, and their short-term and long-term effects have been studied before. In this workshop we intend to take a next step by positioning this topic in a comparative setting, both over time and across regions: our aim is to compare societal reactions to drops in food supply in various parts of the Eurasian continent between 200 BC and the present. By analyzing the variations in responses in time and space using a common framework of reference we hope to contribute to further developing the direction that famine studies have lately been taking. Our aim is to publish the papers presented in the workshop in a volume afterwards.

Societal response to a decline in food supply is affected by various factors. There is often a tendency to focus on the role of elements considered to be exogenous, such as transport problems caused by technological backwardness, or the characteristics of a political regime. However, seen from a comparative and long-term perspective many of these elements are part and parcel of the societies under examination. That is why this workshop focuses mainly on endogenous factors: institutions—organization, rules, practices—that are firmly embedded in societies and to a significant extent determine their coping capacity.

Responses to food shortages can be generated through three main coordination mechanisms: market, state, and civil society. Each coordination mechanism can be seen as a bundle of institutions that shape the options for action open to individuals and organizations. ‘Market’ refers to the total of individual decisions that allow supply and demand to meet: traders increasing imports or selling stocks, producers raising output or shifting to other crops, consumers switching to other foodstuffs or migrating to less afflicted places. ‘State’ refers to the actions of governmental bodies: national but also regional or local authorities regulating the market or providing aid through a variety of means such as reducing taxes, introducing employment schemes, or distributing food directly. ‘Civil society’ includes the contribution of a variety of groups and communities between market and state: patronage networks providing credit, poor relief organizations distributing food or money, religious communities organizing collective prayer or other rituals, ad hoc groups staging a riot.

The balance between the three coordination mechanisms strongly affects the response to drop in food supply. However, exactly how this process takes place is still unclear. In this workshop we intend to focus on two issues in particular. The first relates to the complex interaction between coordination mechanisms. Sometimes a greater emphasis on one coordination mechanism seems to reduce the need for response elsewhere: in classical Rome for instance, charity by members of the elite was very important, reducing the need for government to send food aid. However, the reverse—an active response from one coordinating mechanism stimulating even more action in another—is also possible: in early modern England and France food riots were often a tool to pressure the authorities into regulating the market more closely. The role of the market is also complicated: a well-functioning market, by facilitating the movement of foodstuffs from one region to another, may preclude the need for government intervention, but if it stimulates scarce food supplies to be transported out of the region it may also trigger a tightening of market regulation. We hope the workshop will provide us with a better understanding of these interactions, the factors shaping them, and their consequences. In which situations is, for instance, response to food shortages dominated by a single coordination mechanism, and when is response more diverse, i.e. does it consist of contributions from each of the three coordination mechanisms? And what about the effects: does diversity enhance coping capacity by providing alternatives and back-up systems, or does it instead give rise to fragmentation and coordination failure?

The second issue we would like to focus on bears on the existence of a feed-back cycle. As we have just seen, coordination mechanisms and the institutions they are composed of can be seen as determinants of societal response. However, the way in which a society responds to drops in food supply in turn also affects institutions. For example, the weakening of community institutions or reciprocal informal arrangements may lead to an increasing domination of the market or a stronger position of the state; or the incapacity of authorities to deal with distress may initiate a political overthrow. We hope the workshop will tell us more about the nature and effects of this feed-back cycle. Does, for instance, the response to food crises initiate a path-dependent course of development with long-term consequences? We also hope that the workshop will provide us with the tools required to conduct systematical empirical research on this issue: which methods can be used to disentangle this feed-back cycle in a concrete historical situation?

In summary, in order to better understand the societal response to famines we need to know:

  • how responses to acute food shortages varied over time (200 BC - present) and across regions (China, India, Middle East, Europe)
  • how and to which extent these variations can be attributed to the balance of the three coordination mechanisms market—state—civil society
  • how responses generated through the three coordination mechanisms interact
  • how the feedback-cycle between response and institutions functions.

Preliminary Programme

Interested in attending this workshop? Please contact Bas van Leeuwen via bas.van.leeuwen ( at )