Rhoda E. Howard-Hassman, State Food Crimes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

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Reading State Food Crimes takes me back to my days as a graduate student studying under professor Rhoda E. Howard-Hassman and learning about the complex interplay between human rights and international politics that dominate many of today’s current events. Although many years have passed since I was a student, my history with Dr. Howard-Hassman presents several challenges to writing an honest review that separates my respect for the author from the work. Luckily for me however, State Food Crimes highlights Dr. Howard-Hassman’s ability to use an easy-to-follow structure, multiple sources, and well-supported arguments to educate readers on state-induced famine. The result is a finely crafted book that deepens one’s understanding of food insecurity and the critical roles states can play in exacerbating or even causing famine within their own borders.

Like the detailed and methodical approach Dr. Howard-Hassman took to her weekly lectures, State Food Crimes manages to explain a lesser known and complicated subject by following a tried and true methodology of introducing the problem, demonstrating the relevance of the problem, and then offering solutions. First, she begins by providing a background of what defines a “state food crime” (p.3), as well as historical cases of these crimes and the relevant international laws and guidelines that condemn them. By clearly establishing these acts as crimes that violate moral principles, Dr. Howard-Hassman acts as a virtuous detective who is building a case against a guilty perpetrator. Second, she provides contemporary case studies – North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, the West Bank and Gaza – to illustrate how state food crimes threaten people’s livelihoods all over the world. Third, she offers solutions for combatting state food crimes that empower the reader and the international community to do more to tackle these issues. This easy-to-follow format allows the reader to engage with the text from start to finish without ever questioning the relevance of any chapters while also preventing the book from going off topic.

Dr. Howard-Hassman and the contributions of her multiple research assistants also ensure that State Food Crimes is supported by numerous reputable sources. In addition to the academic articles one expects to see mentioned in a book such as this, she references declarations, reports, and treaties from various intergovernmental organizations. Not only do these sources add further authenticity to her book, but they also play an integral role in her argument. Since Dr. Howard-Hassman claims that state food crimes violate international human rights norms, referencing the documents and organizations that created these norms in the first place helps support her argument.

An easy criticism of any book of this sort written by a Western scholar would be to infer that the narrative is coloured by her own Western interpretation of right and wrong that cannot be applied uniformly across cultures. For example, I could imagine some readers dismissing the book based upon the ill-conceived notion that what Dr. Howard-Hassman constitutes as a crime is a necessary evil for states where population growth is out of control. However, she effectively counters this potential criticism by sticking to the facts and rarely letting her own potential biases influence the narrative. Instead of painting the countries discussed as malevolent antagonists, she carefully explains how specific policies cause states to commit food crimes. Her ability to provide an unbiased assessment of each country is further proven when she recognizes the actions taken by states to improve food security among their populations.

In my opinion, Dr. Howard-Hassman deserves recognition for the way in which she handles the more controversial topics of the book such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Canada’s treatment of its First Nations peoples.  She successfully prevents her own political or ideological viewpoints from colouring the narrative by focusing her discussion on the food crimes being committed. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Dr. Howard-Hassman writes, “It is extremely difficult to summarize the complex history of the relations between Israel and Palestinians. Moreover, much discussion of this history is permeated by anti-Semitism and sometimes Islamophobia. The purpose of my intervention in this discussion is solely to analyze violations of Palestinians’ right to food” (p. 115).  Therefore, by establishing her intent before engaging in the analysis, Dr. Howard-Hassman makes it clear that simply shaming countries is not the purpose of her work.

Ignoring the odd grammatical errors, the only real criticism I can offer against State Food Crimes is that it deepens the pool of literature on state-induced famine or, faminogenesis, without reinventing the wheel. In fact, much of the book references the work done by lawyer David Marcus on state-induced famine and Dr. Howard-Hassman adopts his four categories of intentional, reckless, indifferent, and incompetent creation of famine to determine how culpable countries are in committing food crimes (p. 18). As a result, it can be argued that her work could be better used as part of an anthology series on state-induced famine, along with the writings of Amartya Sen and David Marcus, as opposed to its own standalone book. This format would also have enabled State Food Crimes to be paired with works that discuss additional case studies that she does not, such as the food insecurity present in the Central African Republic and Sierra Leone.

A lesser criticism of State Food Crimes is that it does little to attract the interest of readers concerned with national and regional security issues. For example, in the North Korean case study, Dr. Howard-Hassman discusses how security concerns are given precedence over human rights in contemporary foreign policy. As a result, I had expected her to make a case for the international security benefits of combatting state induced-famine to prevent states from continuing to treat human rights protection as a lesser foreign policy objective. Such a discussion could have also tried to persuade the reader that maintaining international security and promoting human rights are not separate goals. However, a simple counterpoint to this criticism is that Dr. Howard-Hassman’s work is focused solely on analyzing state-induced famine and does not aim to speak to broader defence or security matters vis-à-vis food. Therefore, the effects that famine have on border security, civil war, and similar issues are irrelevant to her discussion, but could certainly make a compelling topic for a separate work.

Policymakers, non-governmental organizations, and scholars looking for solutions to modern food security challenges have something to gain by reading State Food Crimes. The more nuanced analysis Dr. Howard-Hassman offers in her case studies provides the deeper understanding of each food insecurity situation that one requires to properly tackle it. Her approach educates the reader on the harsh realities of state food crimes and shows how different measures of combatting state-induced famine are applicable to different states. For instance, some countries may require a strong political response from world leaders such as China or the United States, while others could use guidance from human rights-respecting countries such as Canada on how to better address their inability to tackle state-induced famine.

Dr. Howard-Hassman’s exploration of the North Korean case is particularly interesting due to recent news of potential peace between North and South. In State Food Crimes, Dr. Howard Hassman writes that when engaging with North Korea, the United States, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia, “adopted alternating policies of containment and engagement, but North Koreans’ human right to food was always secondary to concern about the nuclear threat” (p. 157). As a result, an end to the Korean War could see the end of a nuclear-equipped North Korea and the opportunity for state-induced famine within that state to be properly addressed.

Overall State Food Crimes provides a useful discussion of how state policies cause famine and how these actions are crimes under international human rights norms. By presenting a solid background, relevant contemporary case studies, and methods of combatting the issue in the future, Dr. Howard-Hassman provides a deep understanding of this complex problem. Moreover, the effectiveness of her work is bolstered by strong arguments and easy-to-follow methodology. Her goal is to explain how states cause food insecurity and by the end of the book she clearly succeeds.


Adam Finzi is a Master of Arts graduate from Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science program. His previous work experience includes research and policy analysis for the Permanent Mission of Canada to the Organization of American States and observing El Salvador’s 2014 presidential election at the request of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. His research interests include Canadian foreign policy, human rights, and ethics.

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