India Girds for Famine Linked With Flowering of Bamboo

Pallava Bagla
for National Geographic News
June 22, 2001

NEW DELHI, India—The Government of India is working on an emergency plan to address a regional food shortage and related famine that is expected to occur two years from now when vast forests of bamboo burst into flower.

Some species of bamboo flower only every 40 to 50 years. In an intriguing chain of events, these periods of flowering sometimes lead to the destruction of basic crops, and subsequent widespread famine, in areas of India where bamboo grows heavily.

The last famine of this nature occurred from 1961 through 1965 in the hilly state of Mizoram in eastern India, an area of 21,000 square kilometers (12,482 square miles) with a population of more than 700,000.

Reports suggest that another cycle of heavy bamboo flowering will happen in the region in 2003, which prompted India to call an emergency meeting of its national planning body last week to prepare for the possible calamity.

There are hundreds of species of bamboo in the world. Some flower every year, some at irregular intervals. But a small percentage flowers in synchrony, over hundreds of square kilometers, every few decades. Researchers aren't sure how it happens.

"Science has to date not been able to explain how the same message is passed among bamboo clumps separated by hundred of kilometers to flower at the same time, said botanist H. Y. Mohan Ram of the University of Delhi, who is one of the country's foremost authorities on bamboo.

He speculates that the rhizomes of the bamboo have some kind of "memory" trait that makes the plants grow in synchronization, then burst into bloom all at the same time. After the massive flowering, the bamboo clumps die, in what Mohan Ram calls "a kind of suicide by over-production."

How does all this lead to famine?

Rodent Marauders

When bamboo plants flower, they produce a large volume of seeds, which are a source of food for many predators, especially rats.

As masses of flowering bamboo produce this natural bounty, rats are attracted to the area. Fortified by the protein-rich seeds, they multiply rapidly.

But the supply of bamboo seeds is limited. When it is exhausted, armies of these marauding rodents turn their attention to standing crops, devouring acres of rice, potatoes, and sweet potatoes within a few days. As a result, local peasants, who are fully dependant on agriculture for their sustenance, are subject to famine.

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