The accounts we read of famine never fail to rip our hearts to shreds. Mass human suffering taken to a slow, excruciating end, and the cries of hungry children with no hope of being fed sink us into an agonizing torment. We wonder which is more painful: the bearing witness to so many empty stomachs and the certainty of death, or the knowledge that there is a solution that our feeble political systems simply cannot deliver.  But extreme hunger on a countrywide scale also sends us spinning into a darker region of incomprehension where human depravity descends to levels unimaginable to any right-thinking person. These are the terrifying realities you confront when you read Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine – 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng.

During the four-year period that Mr. Yang chronicles in this amazing book – you will hear the bones of his own ancestors cry out from their mass, unmarked graves – 36 million Chinese died from starvation while an additional 40 million children were not born due to maternal fertility disorders caused by extreme malnutrition. The wholesale elimination of this many people in so short a time is unprecedented in human civilization.

China’s famine deaths reached their peak only 54 years ago which makes Mr. Yang’s account all the more deserving of contemporary notice.  For it was not the usual culprits – drought, flood, pests, or even primitive agricultural methods – that were to blame. The cause, quite simply was political: the dictatorship of the supreme revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, the suppression of dissent and the control of information, and the belief, violently upheld by millions of party cadres, that there was only one way to feed the people: collectivized farms and kitchen communes. Nature could never be so cruel; only mankind has the will and the way to achieve (or prevent) annihilation on such a grand scale. As we look ahead to nine billion mouths to feed in 2050 and the uncertain outcome of now certain climate change, it would be imprudent to dismiss China’s lessons.

Be warned, this book is not for the faint hearted. The misery is rendered dispassionately by Mr. Yang, who has assiduously combed through provincial archives and recorded eye witness accounts of hundreds of survivors. Grim facts need no coloration, and human suffering is not enhanced by elaborate prose. The telling is enough.

To hear the exchanges between Mao, Zhou Enlai, and other high-level party officials while thousands of their countrymen were literally dropping dead in the agricultural fields is the kind of historical documentation that raises hairs on the back of your neck (it is no wonder that Tombstone is banned in China). You learn from Mr. Yang’s witnesses that all the trees in a village were stripped of their bark because that was the last thing for people to eat. And to read of such catastrophic events through an American food insecurity lens, one indicator of which are parents skipping a meal so that their children may eat, seems sadly meaningless when Mr. Yang tells us that some Chinese parents, driven mad by hunger, ate their own children.

Sichuan Province is known as Heaven’s Pantry because its excellent natural resources make it the breadbasket of China. But Mr. Yang tells us that “more than ten million people starved to death here during the Great Famine.” Why? The answer was mirrored across China, but it comes down to the fact that the mythological figure of the decidedly non-democratic Chairman Mao was so profound, it essentially paralyzed the people, and subsequently their reason.

After a visit by the Chairman to Sichuan, one provincial official reported a highly inflated rice harvest that he magically attributed to Mao’s visit. Agricultural experts immediately said the numbers were bogus; however, the absurdly higher figure was the one that was officially accepted. Assuming they had far more rice than they did, most of the actual rice was exported to China’s fast-growing cities (themselves a product of forced urbanization) as well as abroad, leaving the collectivized rural workers with almost nothing to eat.

Cultivation methods that destroyed the topsoil were promulgated from on high, effectively turning vast stretches of once fertile ground into barren hardpan. “Do what we’re told and be good sycophants” were the expectations.  Those at the bottom – those who likely knew the most – toadied up to the leaders in defiance of what they knew to be true, but had not the courage to reveal. This was how you got ahead in 1960 China, or more precisely kept your head.

Those who presented a different analysis than the centralized authority were “struggled,” a practice that went far beyond constructive criticism. This is what happened to one county official, Zhang Fuhong, who deviated from the party-line: He was “labeled a ‘right deviationist’ and ‘degenerate element’ [who] was set upon with fists and feet…during which Zhang was beaten bloody, his hair ripped out in patches…leaving him barely able to walk….When he asked for water he was refused. On November 19, Zhang Fuhong died.”

The loss of local leaders who were willing to speak truth to power was only the tip of the iceberg. Millions suffered and died because information did not flow from the bottom to the top and province to province. There were no systems in place, such as a free press, to facilitate that flow, even if the rulers were willing to hear the bad news. Local participation in problem solving and information sharing was discouraged since all the policies were developed and disseminated in Beijing.  If anyone wants to know if public policy matters to our food system, ask the 36 million who starved to death in China.

Local initiative and self-reliance were also sacrificed to the will of the state. When food ran short and the collectivized system of production and distribution failed to deliver the goods, households planted gardens, raised a pig or two, and fenced in some poultry. But as Yang reveals, individual initiative was not only discouraged, it was brutally suppressed. When famine’s jaws clamped down on the land, existing household vegetable plots and livestock were confiscated. In the same vein, one of Mao’s pet projects, communal kitchens, where all food was to be prepared, became the sole place to eat. As a result, people were often forced to give up their household cooking utensils. As Yang says, “When famine struck, families had no means of saving themselves and could only await death,” a fact that authorities in the U.S. who have stood in the way of local and community-scale food production should take note of.

Is China’s Great Famine merely a 20th century aberration, a product of revolutionary zeal gone temporarily awry, or are there lessons that even the United States food movement can learn? After all, China’s communist consolidation of power under Mao in 1949 followed World War II and a brutal war with Japan, a civil war, oppressive European colonialism, and centuries of disunited feudal rule that extended into the early 20th century. China was a peasant agrarian society that was still largely dependent on 19th century forms of agriculture. We could hardly expect it to immediately fall into line with western democratic principles and modern systems of food production.

Yet we can find in the Great Famine comparisons worthy of consideration for our ever evolving North American food system. As China amply demonstrates, and as we can see from the political transition of many nations over the past decades, shared leadership, citizen engagement, and transparent decision making are not the norms. While North America’s grass roots food movement may be moving in those directions, it is still a case of fits and starts. The more than 220 local, state, provincial, and tribal food policy councils may be the tip of the spear in democratizing our food system, working as they are to bring stakeholder voices to the policy making process, but they are still babes in the woods when it comes to the practice.

Many of America’s national food organizations are ideologically driven and out of touch with the “countryside,” which in this case are the grass roots organizations and local initiatives where authentic information about the food system usually resides. National actors often act as if they are the only authority, largely treating those in the trenches as nothing more than bit players. One’s turf – programmatic as well as geographic – is closely guarded thus limiting communication, innovation, and collaboration. Whether locally or nationally, the first loyalty is frequently to the organization’s mission or leader which can have negative consequences for engaging bigger, more systemic concerns.

When it comes to our state and national governments (local governments being a possible exception because they have shown promise by engaging citizens in food policy and social justice), money and power still trump majority rule. Accountability to the average citizen is a distant concern for most elected officials. The on-going failure to connect farm policy and health policy in any meaningful way illustrates the continuing dominance of special interests. And when it comes to money and power, the for-profit side of the industrial food system serves its own “dictator” – the bottom line. Large corporate interests automatically convert citizen power to consumer power: our only obligation is to buy as much as possible and otherwise remain silent.

The great lesson of the Great Famine is that without an informed and engaged citizenry who have easy access to information and who are confident that their voices are heard, the greater the risk that our food system will run amuck. The catastrophes may one day be appalling as they were in China only 54 years ago, or they may sneak up on us. A growing string of lesser events such as the loss of farmland and the decline of local farming, or the continuing erosion of means and access for America’s growing number of lower income families could slowly unravel America’s much touted food system. While citizen democracy may be a sluggish horse, it is still the best defense against food insecurity and hunger, the decline in healthy and affordable food, and a 21st century famine that may yet be gathering momentum not far from our shores.