So, what can cause a famine?
This is an economic question.
At its root, a famine is a shortage – a shortage of food.
So what causes shortages?
Price ceilings do.
Price ceilings are restrictions on prices that forbid them from rising above a certain point.
And this is an institutional failure, for a famine is a tragic symptom of a more fundamental structural issue.
Because poverty is a symptom—of the absence of a workable economy built on credible political, social, and legal institutions. It’s hard to fix that even with planeloads of cash. Similarly, the lack of food is usually not the root cause of famine. “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat,” the economist Amartya Sen wrote in his landmark book Poverty and Famines. “It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.” In countries whose political and economic institutions are built to serve the appetites of a corrupt few rather than the multitudes, food is routinely withheld from the people who need it most. In the United States, meanwhile, we throw away an astonishing 40 percent of the food we buy.
–Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Think Like A Freak