Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Food, Starvation and Famine – Crisis Preparedness and Survival

Starvation is one of the worst killers of all disasters. The worst famine in history, the famine in China during the “Great Leap Forward” may have caused the deaths of 14-40 million people; 30-50 million is estimated to have died during the Second World War. The worst natural disasters like earthquakes historically have killed a couple of hundred thousand people, but in relation to the suffering created by famine these disasters have a relatively small effect. In this post I will try to explain some of the caucus that leads to famine, different perspectives and give some advice regarding food storage from a crisis preparedness perspective.

Timeline and Historical Events
1845-1848 The Irish Potato Famine resulted in around one million dead and around another million escaped from the Island. This is one of the worst cases in history in relation to the total size of the populations.

1846-1847 The Donner Party consisting of American emigrants got caught by a winter storm. Almost half of the party died from cold, starvation and disease. Many resorted to cannibalism.

1932-33 Joseph Stalin introduced reforms in The Soviet Union that would cost the lives of 6-8 millions from famine, mainly in the Ukraine. This disaster was not recognized by the Soviets for a long time.

1958 – 1961 China introduces a number of reforms in “The Great Leap Forward”, this would cost the lives of 14-40 million people from famine.

1972 A plane flying a rugby team crashes in the Andes. The survivors resort to cannibalism in order to survive, only 16 of the 45 persons would survive. The movie “Alive” is based on the event.

1974 Bangladesh around 1, 5 million died from famine.

1984-1985 Sudan around 250.000 people died from famine.

1992 Christopher McCandless dies from starvation after surviving over a hundred days in the Alaskan wilderness. John Krakauer has written a book about McCandless life called “Into the wild”, there has also been a movie made based on the book.

1995-1999 in North Korea somewhere between 900.000-1,5 million is estimate to have died from famine.

Poverty and Famine
Famine is often related to poverty. Around 800 million people around the world live in extreme poverty today, and an additional 1,2 billion are classified as poor. That equals to around one third of the world total population. For those living in extreme poverty there is a lack of food, clean water, sanitation, shelter, health care and security. The access to food is not only a problem in poor countries, in the United States 11% of the households had problem with getting food on the table during 2007. During 2008 5,7% of the US households had a very low food security, this means that one or more members of the family had to change their eating habits and their food intake was reduced. It’s mostly poor households where this is a problem, single parents with children and disabled is also common risk groups. For more information about food insecurity in the US you can check out USDA:s homepage.

Political Reasons for Famine and War
Famine and starvation do not get much attention in relation to the number of dead from as wars and terrorism. The causes of famine are often a combination of natural causes, civil war, poverty and political actions. Starvation takes place more often in totalitarian and non democratic states where the regimes often don’t recognize that people are starving. These countries can often be selling food to other countries and at the same time receive emergency rations for the population. Other factors that can interact and create starvation are fragile eco systems, erosion and problems with water. War reduces the land available for food production and food storage is often targeted by the different parties in the conflict. Fields are often mined to prevent them from being used for food production; this often continues to be a problem for long periods of time after a conflict comes to an end. Blockade against food aid and attacks against food transports is also common problems in contemporary civil wars. When Rome destroyed the city Carthage 143 BC it’s said that the Romans plowed salt into the field so that nothing would grow there again.

When does Famine take place? The Malthusian Perspective
Thomas Malthus was a priest and economist living from 1766 - 1834. One of Malthus most famous ideas was he’s theory that the production of food can only increase slowly step by step and that the human population increases faster than the increase in food production. This will eventually lead to a situation where the population no longer can increase because of famine and other factors. However, the population of the world has increased very much during the last 200 years. 2000 years ago at year 1 the world population was only around 200 million, 1000 years later the world population had only increased to just over 300 million. At 1800 the world population was just under 1 billion. From the 1800 an extreme increase in the world population has taken place, at 1900 the number was around 1,5 billion, 1950 more than 2,5 billion, 1975 over 4 billion, 1990 over 5 billion, 2000 over 6 billion and today the number is over 6,9 billion. Millions die from starvation every year in today’s world but the population of the world still increases rapidly, the main problem for those starving is not that there is too little food in the world, the problem is that these persons don’t have access to this food because of a combination of factors like poverty, political actions, war and other factors. The Malthusian perspective is however shared by many how believe that there might be a collision between the expanding world population and diminishing natural resources. The Peak Oil Movement, those how believe in The Limits to Growth and the Transition Network are some examples.

There are however other situations when food may also become a problem: ship wrecks and airplanes how crash in remote locations are two examples of incidents how can result in a situation when food becomes a problem. There are also other man-made situations when food often becomes a problem like in prisoner of war camps, concentration camps and refugee camps. In this type of camps it’s very hard to get the food that is received by the camps to reach those in the camp. It is very common that those in power sell food or use it for their own purposes. Food is often used to motivate people in this condition since very few will refuse to do work if the reward is an extra ration.

Home Food Storage for Crisis Preparedness
How much food one should storage depends on a lot of things; I would personally recommend that you try to store food for minimum 1-2 weeks to start with and gradually expend your food storage. There are those how recommend that one should storage a supply of food that will last a full year or even more, John Wiseman the author of the "SAS Survival Handbook" recommends one year. How much storage you think is enough is a matter of personal preferences but I suggest that you try to link your decision to a personal Risk Assessment that takes the specific risks for your situation into consideration.

What Should You Store?
My answer to this question is that you should store what you eat. Do NOT start to store food that you normally don’t eat or don’t like. The most important thing about food storage is that you learn how to rotate your food so that the food doesn’t become too old to eat. If you can’t rotate your food storage it will become a rotten investment.

The other aspect is that storing food should save money for you, not cost you additional money. Some foods like rice and pasta are much cheaper if you can buy large amount like a 10-20 kg bag instead of 20-40 small packages. If you use much crushed tomatoes, coconut milk or other canned food it’s a good idea to buy more of these, especially if you can find them cheaper during a sale. Make it a routine to check for deals at your local stores in the beginning of every week. This is where I recommend that you get started. Build up your storage gradually step by step.

The shelf life for different types of food varies highly. Un-grinded Wheat and Oats is often said to have an almost unlimited storage time if it’s stored cool and dry. If you decide to go for these kinds of staples you must get a grinder that can be used to grind these into flower that can be used to bake breads and make other foods. I recommend that you get a hand grinder that doesn’t require electricity to operate. Honey also has an extreme shelf life close to unlimited. The same goes for Salt and Sugar if they can be stored absolutely dry and cool. Salt is an extremely important addition to food and is very cheap to buy; it can also be used to conserve fish or game in a survival situation.

Canned food has different shelf life, often 3 to 5 years. The old canned food produced by the military have a very long shelf life and can often be eaten decades after they were produced if stored well even if the taste might not be the best. I have personally tried this kind of food that expired over ten years ago and did not become Ill. I do not recommend that you normally eat food with an expiration date that’s passed even if especially canned food often don’t present a problem. However during an emergency you might have to eat what’s available. If you ever unsure try to eat a little of the food first and wait for a few hours to see if you get ill. Then increase the amount, wait and see.

Cooking Oil can normally be stored for around 2 years, Olive Oil normally have a shorter shelf life than normal cooking oil. Powdered Milk can normally be stored for around 2 years, buy a little first and learn how to use it and make sure that you rotate it.

There are companies that sell food for emergency situations that can be stored over 25 years. The technique used is often to take freeze fried food, put it in cans and then replace the oxygen in the can with nitrogen to increase the shelf life even further. Mountainhouse is one company that uses this process and sells this type of products. However these solutions is ratter expensive and there is a good chance that you won’t like this food. Before you make a decision to order a large amount of food from these companies make sure to buy a smaller amount and test if you really like this food. This is not a solution that I would normally recommend but if you have the storage space, money and believes it’s a good solution go for it. However if there never is an emergency when you need it, will you use it or eat anyway? A common similar subject among survivalists is to pack food in mylarbags and then use dry ice to replace the oxygen and increase the shelf life of different types of food. Another method is to learn home-canning. This may be a good alternative for long term storage but I would still suggest that you focus on building a food storage that you constantly rotate; this takes care of the problem of shelf-life since you constantly replace your stock.

Where you store is also very important. Store your food in a place that is a dry and as cool as possible. I also recommend that you get strong air tight containers that you store your food in. If you live in a house a root cellar is an ideal place to store many types of food. A root cellar also means that you can store potatoes and onions for much longer periods of time compared to storage in a refrigerator.

Special Food Products
Vitamins pills can be a good complement to your diet, but I suggest that you try to the most of your vitamins from eating fruits and vegetables. Canned fruit and dried fruit can be a good complement to regular food storage.

Ultra High Temperature (UHT) treated milk products have a much longer storage time than regular milk products and can often be stored for months in room temperature if not opened. UHT milk products often have a special taste and cost more than regular milk.

Swedish Hard Bread from the company Wasa called “Knäckebröd” has very much fibers and a very long storage time. I recommend that you try it out and see if you like it, if you do it’s a good complement to regular bread and it’s very healthy bread.

The size of the Portions, freeze portions
I’ve written this before in other posts but it’s worth saying again: One of the most important aspects is that you learn how cook food by yourself. Learn how to make all kinds of food. And learn how to make these foods from scratch; don’t buy the premade food that you only put in a pan and it’s done. The same goes for bread, learn how to bake it from scratch, put the bread you can’t eat right away in the freezer, it will keep the bread fresh and make it last much longer.

Another aspect that I recommend that everyone tries to do is to start making much food when you cook. Then make portions and freeze the food that you can’t eat right away, this way you will always have healthy food available. Start bringing the portions with you to work or school; this will save you a lot of money instead of eating out. And learn how much you eat, don’t make to big portions. It’s estimated that up to 40% of all food in the Western Worlds get thrown away, don’t put more food on your plate than you can eat. During a crisis situation or emergency this is extremely important, you can’t afford to throw your food away.

The Crisis Situation
Things that have to be stored cold in your refrigerator and freezer will be the food that’s going to waste the first if the electrical grid stops working. Start to eat this food before it goes to waste then move on to food that doesn’t have to be stored cold. A generator can be used to keep your refrigerator and freezer working for some time and prevent it from being spoiled during shorter black outs. If the crisis lasts a long time I suggest that you start to ration your food as fast as possible to make it last longer.

Stoves and Cooking
It’s also important that you get the equipment that allows you to prepare food in a crisis situation if the electric grid goes off line. I recommend that you get some kind stove like a Multi Fuel Stove, Trangia Stove, Gas Stove, Jetboil, Wood Stove, Heat-Pal or Esbit. If you intend to use the equipment for your home there are more stationary solutions that also can be used if you’re going camping and have the access to a snowmobile or other means of transport. Primus and Soto has some gas stoves with double heaters that excellent for these situations. There are also military cooking systems for many persons that often can be bought cheap as surplus. Make sure to include fuel to your stove. The safety aspect using these stoves is extremely important, they can cause fire, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide poisoning if used indoors. Only use them outdoors or in well ventilated locations. Keep a bucket of water, a fire extinguisher or fire proof blanket handy. Especially the stoves from Trangia must be used with extreme caution; the flame from the burner is often invisible. Get solid containers made from steel, aluminum or plastic safety bottles to the Trangia Stove and other Alcohol Stoves.

A Dutch Oven is a cast iron cooking vessel with lids that can be used to cook food over an open fire. They can also be surrounded with coal and used as an Oven to bake bread. The Muurikka is another excellent solution based on a cast iron/steel wok plate that can be used over an open fire to prepare food for an entire family. Both Dutch Ovens and Muurikkas are a bit too heavy if you have to carry your equipment on your back for longer distances. There are also other types of stoves that can be used together with wood and other pieces of fuel that you may find in your local terrain. The Vargo Hexagon Titanium Stove, The Kelly Kettle and The Nomad Camp Stove are some examples.

A Barbeque grill with either gas or coal is also an excellent complement in an emergency, but most importantly an excellent way to prepare food for party’s or dinners. Pressure cookers is also a very good way to prepare food, they allow you to cook food in high temperatures under pressure and conserves both water and energy in a crisis situation. They also allow you to prepare your food in a much shorter amount of time. Solar Owens is also something that’s often recommended as for cooking during a crisis situation.

Fishing, Hunting and Edible Plants
Fishing and Hunting can be an import addition to your diet during an emergency or crisis situation. This of course depends on your location, but if you’re planning to hunt or fish as a complement I recommend that you learn how to this before a crisis takes place and learn what really works in your terrain. There is solutions for fishing that don’t require your attention all the times like nets or rigs with lines and hooks. The same goes for hunting, you must learn all the practical aspect like tracking, where pray can be found, get the equipment, learn how to butcher, transport and prepare the food.

Edible plants, berries and mushrooms are an excellent addition to your diet that can add extra vitamins, nutrition and flavor. The same thing goes for edible plants as for fishing and hunting: You must learn where you can find these and how they look like before a crisis. If you don’t learn this you risk eating something poisonous and this can have a deadly outcome. Start with studying books, then take a course or follow an expert when they go picking mushrooms, berries or edible plants. You don’t want to learn what edible and not the hard way. During starvation situation it’s common that people will start to suffer and die from vitamin deficiencies like Beriberi (Vitamin B1) and Scurvy (Vitamin C). Learning what local plants that can provide vitamins can mean the difference between life and death.

Another topic often discussed is to produce different kinds of food yourself by gardening and farming. If you have big garden or live on the country side this can be a very good complement to food storage, even if you live in apartment in the city you can grow some herbs and fruit in a small scale on a balcony. There are some experts that recommend the storage of seeds that can be used after extreme kind of crisis situations; if you’re considering this I suggest that you to start to learn this process right now. Get to know what will grow the best in your climate and soil conditions. This will require a rather large amount of time, land, knowledge, equipment and hard work. A good way to conserve fish, meat, berries, fruit and mushrooms is to dry the food. There is excellent equipment that’s used to dry food such as the electrical Evermat.

If you’re going camping or have to carry food during an evacuation I suggest that you mainly go for light weight food like freeze dried rations. Meals Ready to Eat (MRE:s) has the main advantage that they don’t have to be prepared before you eat them, but they have a high weight compared to freeze dried food. Freeze dried food can be bought in portion sized bags, all you have to is to add hot water into the bag and wait for a couple of minutes. If your hiking or camping an area with a limited supply of water MRE:s is a better alternative. I especially like the freeze dried food from DryTech, Blå Band Expedition Meal and Trekn Eat myself. Sea To Summit makes a extra aluminum long spoon that great if you want to eat straight from the bag. Powerbars or Protein bars can be a good addition as a snack during an emergency situation. A trail mix made of chocolate, nuts and raisins is also good. Dried elk, reindeer meat or beef jerky is another alternative.

Psychological and Physical Reactions to Starvation
Hunger and Famine have serious psychological and physical effects. Most people can go for up to three day without food without any serious reduction in their physical and mental capabilities. After this time the lack of food stops to be an inconvenience and starts to become an obsession. Most other considerations starts to become secondary and food occupies both thoughts and even dreams. If people are denied the access to food they can become very violent and get ready to take it from others how posses it. People may even get ready to kill in order to get to food, this have even taken place among friends during expeditions.

As people start to lose body weight they also starts to constantly feel cold. Common reactions are apathy, depression, irritation, emotional instability. When the access to food becomes scares in a society civil unrest and hunger riots are common results. When all reserves are used the body starts to break down organs. Losing around half of the body weight is not uncommon, survivors from prisoner of war camps and concentration camps have often had a weight between 30-40 kilograms. Starvation presents other dangers since it makes people more vulnerable to hypothermia and infections. Severe hunger also breaks down the normal moral that people have, prostitution in order to get food, stealing, robbery and even murder may take place.

In the early stages of this situation it is very important that you eat everything you can from the very start. Even if there is food that you don’t like or would never eat during normal circumstances. When people get hungry enough this stops becoming a problem but by then you will have loosed valuable energy and time if you can’t master the will to eat everything from the beginning. I suggest that you learn to eat everything by training at doing this now, take the food you like the least and learn to eat it. It also take time to recover from starvation, normally it takes one to two months to recover from medium levels and more than half a year from severe situations

Overweight a big problem in most western countries; it’s a much bigger problem than people getting to little food in this part of the world. Too much food, snacks, candy, soft drinks, bier and other unhealthy food in combination with too little exercise creates this problem. Overweight can be a major problem for your personal health; overweight brings big problems both in a short and long term perspective. A common way to measure if your weight is normal is the Body Mass Index (BMI) measurment. The Body Mass Index is calculated by taking your weight in kilograms and divides it by your length (in meters) in square. Normally a BMI between 18,5 and 25 is considered a normal weight, a BMI between 25 and 30 as overweight and BMI over 30 as obese.  The BMI does not measure a person’s body fat so it is not necessary a perfect indictor for health but it can give you an indicator concerning your health.

This is never an easy problem to overcome and you need to change your lifestyle in order to get rid of the problem. If you stop eating candy, sweets and starts to only drink water instead of sodas you’re well on your way. Start to exercise at least three times a week. The problem is often a result of the people around you and their habits, try to get your family, partner and friends onboard. It’s harder to make changes if your family and friends don’t change their unhealthy habits as well. Alcohol also contains many calories and if you drink too much cut down or stop completely.

Breakfast is a very important meal that shouldn’t be skipped. Make sure to eat a healthy breakfast every day and make this into a routine. Eat Lunch and Supper at regular times and make a habit of don’t skipping meals. If you want a snack in between meals eat a fruit or sandwich.

Also see:
Water during Emergency and Survival Situations
Peak Oil
The Limits to Growth


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