I just started watching ST:DS9. In one of the earlier episodes an alien race displaced from their home world in the Gamma Quadrant asks to be able to settle on Bajor. The Provisional government denies the request, citing a world-wide famine as one of the reasons. With replicator technology, how can a planet suffer from famine?
Obviously, if any Federation planet undergoes any sort of disaster, famines included, Starfleet would be ordered to render aid, such as by bringing food supplies and food replicators. Still, federation worlds can go through famine if there's a disruption in the Federation world's food supply while they're cut off from Federation aid.
The disruption could be due to a catastrophic technological breakdown and/or a major ecological disaster. While energy is abundant throughout most of the Federation, this isn't always the case. Thus if a planet doesn't have the agricultural base to support its food supply requirements, and it is energy starved, then famine can still ensue. War can also be a cause of food supply problems.
Outer colonies and war-torn/disputed areas are most vulnerable to famine since they're the hardest for the Federation to render aid to, as opposed to worlds in the Federation core, which enjoy a more or less utopian existence. Still, during peace time, famine would only be a temporary condition lasting only as long as it takes for the Federation to allocate resources and transport them to the world in need of famine relief.
I.e. it's trivial for the Federation to procure the resources to feed a few thousand colonists indefinitely. However, suddenly having to feed an entire planet of 3-4 billion is quite a different undertaking. Just for temporary disaster relief, you'd need to tap into the surplus food production capabilities of a few worlds and then mobilize a large fleet of starships to transport those food stuffs to the world experiencing the famine. A permanent solution would require assembling scientists and engineers to fix the food production system, and probably allocate industrial replicators and other rare pieces of machinery. This is a time-consuming process that would take months if not years.
So now let's look at the situation with Bajor:
- First and foremost, Bajor is NOT in fact a Federation world at this time. At the start of DS9, they had been an occupied Cardassian world for over 4 decades. And even after the Cardassian withdrawal, they were still not a Federation world (it would take 7 more years for Bajor to gain membership).
- As such, the planet is technically not even part of Federation space and sits at the far edge of Federation territory straddling the Federation-Cardassian border. This is why the Federation needed to maintain a presence on DS9 in order to support and protect the nascent Republic of Bajor. It also limited the Federation's ability to intervene in famines.
- Bajor has a population of 3.8B and were primarily a theocratic agrarian society. That means they were very poorly industrialized and their food supply depended pretty much entirely on physical farming. When the Cardassians stripped the planet of all its resources and made most of the land barren, this suddenly put 3.8B Bajorans in a famine situation with no replicator-based food production system and very sparse famine-recovery technologies like soil reclamators.
- Since Bajor didn't have weather modification systems like Federation worlds, they also experienced drought, and their recovery efforts were also hindered by terrorism, provisional government infighting, civil unrest (partly due to lack of confidence in the provisional government), Cardassian sabotage, and then later the Dominion War.
- The few industrial replicators the Federation had in the region (needed for construction of factories and power plants crucial for the planet's recovery) had to be split between Bajor and Cardassia because of political/diplomatic necessity, and on top of that, most were hijacked by the Maquis.
So this wasn't really a case of a Federation world going through a famine. It's a case of sporadic famine on a war-torn non-Federation world that was difficult for the Federation to render aid to.
Access to replicators doesn't completely ensure members of the Federation, from time to time, won't suffer from food insecurity, famine, plague or pandemics. Star Trek, the franchise, is rife with missions of mercy where food and medical shipments are sped from one part of the Federation to another for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the species being supported are not yet members of the Federation, making those missions both humanitarian and diplomatic.
Replicators are not a magic bullet
As amazing as replicator technology can be, even in a galactic society as technologically advanced as the Federation, events such as food shortages or famine, plagues or pandemics, are all still possible under the right conditions.
One of the things that needs to be remembered is the scale of the problem. There are billions of inhabitants on thousands of worlds which means there is a significant feat of social, cultural, technological, medical and logistical effort required to keep everyone at whatever desired level of comfort is considered the norm for the inhabitants of each planet and their attendant social groups.
During wartime, food production is most certain to be interrupted. Food processing and manufacturing may suffer as such facilities become potential targets, depending on the attitudes of the combatants toward the civilian populace. If facing an enemy that does not believe in attacking civilian populations such plants will not become targets. In the case of the Cardassians it is safe to assume, they were willing to disrupt food chains during the Occupation of Bajor as another crippling blow to the morale of the Bajorans.
Population is another potential factor in food shortages or famine. The larger the population and the more dependent they are on industrialized food processes, the easier it is to starve that population by interrupting its supply lines. It may also depend on the quality of their landmass or their hydroponic capacities.
If such capacities have been damaged by war or technologies lost, the ability to create sufficient food could have catastrophic and debilitating effects in a matter of weeks, taking years to correct if it goes on long enough. A particularly deadly famine could devastate a population, ravage skills, education, training, undermine social and cultural norms.
For example: On Earth today, most cities have approximately five to seven days of food on hand. After a couple of weeks most densely populated cities will have NO appreciable food on hand. Even advanced civilizations will have to have places to store food (warehouses) areas to move food from, and distribution methods for the food to reach the people. It is these logistics that enemies attack to cause food insecurity in a populace.
Along with food insecurity, comes disease propagation. When you deny a population access to food and water (depending on their water needs, if they are like humans, each requires at least a litre a day) health begins to deteriorate and vulnerability to disease becomes a factor. If the species lives in dense populations, close quarters or lack sufficient waste management technology, they may end up sharing dangerous pathogens as their health quality deteriorates.
Could replicators ameliorate these conditions?
The replicator is a tool meant to offer the ability to supplement dietary needs, not supplant them. Most people admit the replicator produces food with inferior flavor even if it can meet the chemical nutritional requirements of various species. Replicator technology also requires a significant energy source and the training required to maintain both the energy source and the replicator technology.
Not to mention, replicators still require a base biomass to be converted so waste materials from food grown normally could be put to use as the source matter for replicated food, ensuring a high degree of food production efficiency. Such foods might also be fit for domesticated animals as well. It is certain when the Federation arrived on Bajor, they initially provided the biomass necessary for conversion until the Bajorans could get back to farming as their primary food source.
In the case of Bajor, prolonged war and occupation by the Cardassians made conditions that certainly created the possibility of food shortages because even in the age of replicators; people still prefer to grow food, either naturally or hydroponically, if water is plentiful enough. Organic food is likely to be more nutritious, better tasting, locally grown, and less energy intensive to produce over time.
- Additionally, read/write errors cause a number of single-bit errors to occur in replicated materials. Though usually undetectable to human senses, computer scanning can be used to reveal these discrepancies, and they may explain the frequent complaint (by some gourmets and connoisseurs) that replicated food and beverages suffer from substandard taste. These errors also may cause a nontoxic material to become toxic when replicated, or create strains of deadly viruses and bacteria from previously harmless ones. REF: Wikipedia -> Replicator -> Theory
The DS9 series starts right after the Cardassian withdrawal. When the Cardassians withdrew, they left widespread damage on Bajor and the station and even with Replicator technology, the sheer quantity of work required would have taken some time to repair all of that damage done to the planet. The Federation, I am sure, supplied industrial replicators and I assume food replicators too. Eventually, they would have been able to use the supplies donated by the Federation to repair the damage done during the occupation, but it would have taken time and I am sure there was a while where the damage to Bajor was so severe they could not even take care of themselves let alone anyone else seeking assistance.
http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Occupation_of_Bajor also references that the Cardassians poisoned fertile farm land which would have had a profound effect on the Bajorans ability to feed themselves without technological assistance. Health was another factor in the Bajorans decision to turn the Skreeans away. The same article references plagues as another reason for turning them away so with the destruction of infrastructure, for a time there would have been major health issues on the planet.
Probably the most important thing to note is that Bajor was not a Federation world, at the time... so they don't automatically get all the same benefits and protections that membership provide.
Secondly it sounded like the minister was over-simplifying the situation. She did explicitly state they could feed themselves at that time so the famine likely referred to the occupation itself.