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Title: Famine  
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Photograph by Gareth Jones showing starving children during the Soviet famine of 1932–33

A famine is a widespread scarcity of food,[1] caused by several factors including crop failure, population unbalance, or government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality. Nearly every continent in the world has experienced a period of famine throughout history. Some countries, particularly in sub-Sahara Africa, continue to have extreme cases of famine.


  • History 1
    • Decline of famine 1.1
    • Attempts at famine alleviation 1.2
    • 20th century 1.3
  • Regional history 2
    • Africa 2.1
    • Far East 2.2
    • India 2.3
    • Middle East 2.4
    • Europe 2.5
    • Latin America 2.6
    • Oceania 2.7
  • Famine today 3
  • Risk of future famine 4
  • Causes 5
    • Climate and population pressure 5.1
    • State-sponsored famines 5.2
  • Famine prevention 6
    • Food security 6.1
    • Relief 6.2
    • Levels of food insecurity 6.3
  • Society and culture 7
  • See also 8
  • Footnotes 9
  • References 10
  • Sources and further reading 11
  • External links 12


The cyclical occurrence of famine has been a mainstay of societies engaged in subsistence agriculture since the dawn of agriculture itself. The frequency and intensity of famine has fluctuated throughout history, depending on changes in food demand, such as population growth, and supply-side shifts caused by changing climatic conditions. Famine was first eliminated in Holland and England during the 17th century, due to the commercialization of agriculture and the implementation of improved techniques to increase crop yields.

Decline of famine

Depiction of feudal agriculture in England, ca. 1310.

The feudal system of the Middle Ages, in which subsistence peasants worked on the land of a lord in return for protection, was not conducive to improvement or change, as neither the peasants nor the landlords had much economic incentive to increase the land's productivity.

In the 16th and 17th century, the feudal system began to break down, and more prosperous farmers began to enclose their own land and improve their yields to sell the surplus crops for a profit. These capitalist landowners paid their labourers with money, thereby increasing the commercialization of rural society. In the emerging competitive labour market, better techniques for the improvement of labour productivity were increasingly valued and rewarded. It was in the farmer's interest to produce as much as possible on their land in order to sell it to areas that demanded that product. They produced guaranteed surpluses of their crop every year if they could.

Subsistence peasants were also increasingly forced to commercialize their activities because of increasing taxes. Taxes that had to be paid to central governments in money forced the peasants to produce crops to sell. Sometimes they produced industrial crops, but they would find ways to increase their production in order to meet both their subsistence requirements as well as their tax obligations. Peasants also used the new money to purchase manufactured goods. The agricultural and social developments encouraging increased food production were gradually taking place throughout the 16th century, but took off in the early 17th century.

By the 1590s, these trends were sufficiently developed in the rich and commercialized province of Holland to allow its population to withstand a general outbreak of famine in Western Europe at that time. By that time, the Netherlands had one of the most commercialized agricultural systems in Europe. They grew many industrial crops such as flax, hemp and hops. Agriculture became increasingly specialized and efficient. The efficiency of Dutch agriculture allowed for much more rapid urbanization in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries than anywhere else in Europe. As a result, productivity and wealth increased, allowing the Netherlands to maintain a steady food supply.[2]

By 1650, English agriculture had also becomes commercialized on a much wider scale. The last peace-time famine in England was in 1623-24. There were still periods of hunger, as in the Netherlands, but no more famines ever occurred. Common areas for pasture were enclosed for private use and large scale, efficient farms were consolidated. Other technical developments included the draining of marshes, more efficient field use patterns, and the wider introduction of industrial crops. These agricultural developments led to wider prosperity in England and increasing urbanization.[3] By the end of the 17th century, English agriculture was the most productive in Europe.[4] In both England and the Netherlands, the population stabilized between 1650 and 1750, the same time period in which the sweeping changes to agriculture occurred. Famine still occurred in other parts of Europe, however. In East Europe, famines occurred as late as the twentieth century.

Attempts at famine alleviation

Skibbereen 1847 by James Mahony for the Illustrated London News.

Because of the severity of famine, it was a chief concern for governments and other authorities. In pre-industrial Europe, preventing famine, and ensuring timely food supplies, was one of the chief concerns of many governments, although they were severely limited in their options due to limited levels of external trade and an infrastructure and bureaucracy generally too rudimentary to affect real relief. Most governments were concerned by famine because it could lead to revolt and other forms of social disruption.

By the mid-19th century and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, it became possible for governments to alleviate the effects of famine through price controls, large scale importation of food products from foreign markets, stockpiling, rationing, regulation of production and charity. The Great Famine of 1845 in Ireland was one of the first famines to feature such intervention, although the government response was often lacklustre. The initial response of the British government to the early phase of the famine was "prompt and relatively successful," according to F. S. L. Lyons.[5] Confronted by widespread crop failure in the autumn of 1845, Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel purchased £100,000 worth of maize and cornmeal secretly from America. Baring Brothers & Co initially acted as purchasing agents for the Prime Minister. The government hoped that they would not "stifle private enterprise" and that their actions would not act as a disincentive to local relief efforts. Due to weather conditions, the first shipment did not arrive in Ireland until the beginning of February 1846.[6] The maize corn was then re-sold for a penny a pound.[7]

In 1846, Peel moved to repeal the Corn Laws, tariffs on grain which kept the price of bread artificially high. The famine situation worsened during 1846 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in that year did little to help the starving Irish; the measure split the Conservative Party, leading to the fall of Peel's ministry.[8] In March, Peel set up a programme of public works in Ireland.[9]

People waiting for famine relief in Bangalore From the Illustrated London News, 1877.

Despite this promising start, the measures undertaken by Peel's successor, Lord John Russell, proved comparatively "inadequate" as the crisis deepened. Russell's ministry introduced public works projects, which by December 1846 employed some half million Irish and proved impossible to administer. The government was influenced by a laissez-faire belief that the market would provide the food needed. It halted government food and relief works, and turned to a mixture of "indoor" and "outdoor" direct relief; the former administered in workhouses through the Poor Law, the latter through soup kitchens.[10]

A systematic attempt at creating the necessary regulatory framework for dealing with famine was developed by the Lord Ripon.

The Code introduced the first famine scale: three levels of food insecurity were defined: near-scarcity, scarcity, and famine. "Scarcity" was defined as three successive years of crop failure, crop yields of one-third or one-half normal, and large populations in distress. "Famine" further included a rise in food prices above 140% of "normal", the movement of people in search of food, and widespread mortality.[11] The Commission identified that the loss of wages from lack of employment of agricultural labourers and artisans were the cause of famines. The Famine Code applied a strategy of generating employment for these sections of the population and relied on open-ended public works to do so.[14]

20th century

During the 20th century, an estimated 70 million people died from famines across the world, of whom an estimated 30 million died during the famine of 1958–61 in China.[15] The other most notable famines of the century included the 1942–1945 disaster in Bengal, famines in China in 1928 and 1942, and a sequence of famines in the Soviet Union, including the Soviet famine of 1932-1933, caused by the policies of Stalin.

Feed The World logo designed for Band Aid.

A few of the great famines of the late 20th century were: the Biafran famine in the 1960s, the Khmer Rouge-caused famine in Cambodia in the 1970s, the North Korean famine of the 1990s and the Ethiopian famine of 1984–85.

The latter event was reported on television reports around the world, carrying footage of starving Ethiopians whose plight was centered around a feeding station near the town of Korem. This stimulated the first mass movements to end famine across the world.

Bob Geldof and featured more than 20 pop stars. The Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia raised even more funds for the cause. An estimated 900,000 people died within one year as a result of the famine, but the tens of millions of pounds raised by Band Aid and Live Aid are widely believed to have saved the lives of Ethiopians who were in danger of dying.

Regional history


Early history

In the mid-22nd century BC, a sudden and short-lived climatic change that caused reduced rainfall resulted in several decades of drought in Upper Egypt. The resulting famine and civil strife is believed to have been a major cause of the collapse of the Old Kingdom. An account from the First Intermediate Period states, "All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger and people were eating their children." In 1680s, famine extended across the entire Sahel, and in 1738 half the population of Timbuktu died of famine.[16] In Egypt, between 1687 and 1731, there were six famines.[17] The famine that afflicted Egypt in 1784 cost it roughly one-sixth of its population.[18] The Maghreb experienced famine and plague in the late 18th century and early 19th century.[19][20] There was famine in Tripoli in 1784, and in Tunis in 1785.[21]

According to John Iliffe, "Portuguese records of Angola from the 16th century show that a great famine occurred on average every seventy years; accompanied by epidemic disease, it might kill one-third or one-half of the population, destroying the demographic growth of a generation and forcing colonists back into the river valleys."[22]

The first documentation of weather in West-Central Africa occurs around the mid-16th to 17th centuries in areas such as Luanda Kongo, however, not much data was recorded on the issues of weather and disease except for a few notable documents. The only records obtained are of violence between Portuguese and Africans during the Battle of Mbilwa in 1665. In these documents the Portuguese wrote of African raids on Portuguese merchants solely for food, giving clear signs of famine. Additionally, instances of cannibalism by the African Jaga were also more prevalent during this time frame, indicating an extreme deprivation of a primary food source.[23]

Colonial period
A 1906 Punch cartoon depicting King Leopold II as a rubber vine entangling a Congolese man.

A notable period of famine occurred around the turn of the 20th century in the Congo Free State. In forming this state, Leopold used mass labor camps to finance his empire.[24] This period resulted in the death of up to 10 million Congolese from brutality, disease and famine.[25] Some colonial "pacification" efforts often caused severe famine, notably with the repression of the Maji Maji revolt in Tanganyika in 1906. The introduction of cash crops such as cotton, and forcible measures to impel farmers to grow these crops, sometimes impoverished the peasantry in many areas, such as northern Nigeria, contributing to greater vulnerability to famine when severe drought struck in 1913.

A large scale famine occurred in Ethiopia in 1888 and succeeding years, as the rinderpest epizootic, introduced into Eritrea by infected cattle, spread southwards reaching ultimately as far as South Africa. In Ethiopia it was estimated that as much as 90 percent of the national herd died, rendering rich farmers and herders destitute overnight. This coincided with drought associated with an el Nino oscillation, human epidemics of smallpox, and in several countries, intense war. The Ethiopian Great famine that afflicted Ethiopia from 1888 to 1892 cost it roughly one-third of its population.[26] In Sudan the year 1888 is remembered as the worst famine in history, on account of these factors and also the exactions imposed by the Mahdist state.

Records compiled for the Himba recall two droughts from 1910-1917. They were recorded by the Himba through a method of oral tradition. From 1910-1911 the Himba described the drought as "drought of the omutati seed" also called omangowi, which means the fruit of an unidentified vine that people ate during the time period. From 1914-1916 droughts brought katur' ombanda or kari' ombanda which means "the time of eating clothing".[27]

20th century
Malnourished children in Niger, during the 2005 famine

For the middle part of the 20th century, agriculturalists, economists and geographers did not consider Africa to be famine prone (they were much more concerned about Asia). There were notable counter-examples, such as the famine in Rwanda during World War II and the Malawi famine of 1949, but most famines were localized and brief food shortages. Although the drought was brief the main cause of death in Rwanda was due to Belgian prerogatives to acquisition grain from their colony (Rwanda). The increased grain acquisition was related to WW2. This and the drought caused 300,000 Rwandans to perish.[24]

From 1967-1969 large scale famine occurred in Biafra and Nigeria due to a government blockade of the Breakaway territory. It is estimated that 1.5 million people died of starvation due to this famine. Additionally, drought and other government interference with the food supply caused 500 thousand Africans to perish in Central and West Africa.[28]

Famine recurred in the early 1970s, when Ethiopia and the west African Sahel suffered drought and famine. The Ethiopian famine of that time was closely linked to the crisis of feudalism in that country, and in due course helped to bring about the downfall of the Emperor Haile Selassie. The Sahelian famine was associated with the slowly growing crisis of pastoralism in Africa, which has seen livestock herding decline as a viable way of life over the last two generations.

A girl during the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s. Pictures of the famine caused by Nigerian blockade garnered sympathy for the Biafrans worldwide.

Famines occurred in Sudan in the late-1970s and again in 1990 and 1998. The 1980 famine in Karamoja, Uganda was, in terms of mortality rates, one of the worst in history. 21% of the population died, including 60% of the infants. [29] In the 1980s, large scale multilayer drought occurred in the Sudan and Sahelian regions of Africa. This caused famine because even though the Sudanese Government believed there was a surplus of grain, there were local deficits across the region.[30]

In October 1984, television reports describing the Ethiopian famine as "biblical", prompted the

  • 1980s Drought and Subsequent Food Crisis from the Dean Peter Krogh Foreign Affairs Digital Archives
  • Morning Star Fishermen And The Race Against Hunger
  • United Nations World Food Programme Hunger relief against poverty and famine
  • International Food Policy Research Institute Sustainable solutions for ending hunger
  • Article from Technorati on the Issue of Shrinking Arable Farmland and its Contribution to Food shortages and high food prices
  • In Depth: Africa's Food Crisis, BBC News
  • Fighting Hunger and poverty in Ethiopia (Geopolicity) PDF (1.48 MiB) (Peter Middlebrook)
  • Overfarming African Land Is Worsening Hunger Crisis - New York Times
  • Food Security: A Review of Literature from Ethiopia to India (Geopolicity)
  • Famine Crimes in International Law. David Marcus, The American Journal of International Law, 2003.
  • The Real Causes of Famine - Time Magazine

External links

  • Asimov, Isaac, Asimov's New Guide to Science, pp. 152–153, Basic Books, Inc. : 1984.
  • Bhatia, B.M. (1985) Famines in India: A study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India with Special Reference to Food Problem, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
  • Chaudhari, B. B (1984). Desai, Meghnad; Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber; Rudra, Ashok, eds. Agrarian power and agricultural productivity in South Asia 1. University of California Press.  
  • Davis, Mike, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, London, Verso, 2002 (Excerpt online.)
  • Dutt, Romesh C. Open Letters to Lord Curzon on Famines and Land Assessments in India, first published 1900, 2005 edition by Adamant Media Corporation, Elibron Classics Series, ISBN 1-4021-5115-2.
  • Dutt, Romesh C. The Economic History of India under early British Rule, first published 1902, 2001 edition by Routledge, ISBN 0-415-24493-5
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010). "Food-availability decline". Retrieved October 1, 2010 
  • Ganson, Nicholas, The Soviet Famine of 1946-47 in Global and Historical Perspective. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. (ISBN 0-230-61333-0)
  • Genady Golubev and Nikolai Dronin, Geography of Droughts and Food Problems in Russia (1900–2000), Report of the International Project on Global Environmental Change and Its Threat to Food and Water Security in Russia (February, 2004).
  • Greenough, Paul R., Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal. The Famine of 1943-1944, Oxford University Press 1982
  • Harrison, G. Ainsworth.,Famine, Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • LeBlanc, Steven, Constant battles: the myth of the peaceful, noble savage, St. Martin's Press (2003) argues that recurring famines have been the major cause of warfare since paleolithic times. ISBN 0-312-31089-7
  • Lassa, Jonatan., "Famine, drought, malnutrition: Defining and fighting hunger." 3 July 2006.
  • Middlebrook, Peter, When the Public Works: Generating Employment and Social Protection in Ethiopia, Lambert Academic Publishing. 2009. ISBN 978-3-8383-0672-8
  • Li, Lillian M. Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 2007 ISBN 978-0-8047-5304-3.
  • Massing, Michael (2003). "Does Democracy Avert Famine?". The New York Times. Retrieved September 27, 2010 
  • Mead, Margaret. “The Changing Significance of Food.” American Scientist. (March–April 1970). pp. 176–189.
  • Ray, James Arthur; Sivertsen, Linda (2008). Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want. Hyperion.  
  • Moon, William. "Origins of the Great North Korean Famine." North Korean Review [2]
  • Sen, Amartya, Poverty and Famines : An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982 via Questia via Oxford Press
  • Shipton, Parker (1990). "African Famines and Food Security: Anthropological Perspectives". Annual Review of Anthropology 19: 353–394.  
  • Srivastava, H.C., The History of Indian Famines from 1858–1918, Sri Ram Mehra and Co., Agra, 1968.
  • Sommerville, Keith. Why famine stalks Africa, BBC, 2001
  • Webb, Patrick. Famine. In Griffiths, M (ed.). Encyclopaedia of International Relations and Global Politics. London: Routledge, 2005, pp. 270–72.
  • Woo-Cumings, Meredith, The Political Ecology of Famine: The North Korean Catastrophe and Its Lessons PDF (807 KiB), ADB Institute Research Paper 31, January 2002.

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  93. ^ Patrick Vinton Kirch (1989). The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms. Cambridge University Press. p.
  94. ^ Andrew Shryock, Daniel Lord Smail (2011). "Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present". University of California Press. p.139. ISBN 0520270282
  95. ^ Rising food prices curb aid to global poor
  96. ^
  97. ^ The limits of a Green Revolution?
  98. ^ Massing 2003, p. 1.
  99. ^ "Global food crisis looms as climate change and population growth strip fertile land", The Guardian', 31 Aug 2007
  100. ^ "2008: The year of global food crisis"
  101. ^ "The global grain bubble", Christian Science Monitor
  102. ^ The cost of food: Facts and figures
  103. ^ New York Times (2007 September) At Tyson and Kraft, Grain Costs Limit Profit
  104. ^ Watts, Jonathan (4 December 2007). "Riots and hunger feared as demand for grain sends food costs soaring". The Guardian. 
  105. ^ Already we have riots, hoarding, panic: the sign of things to come?
  106. ^ Borger, Julian (26 February 2008). "Feed the world? We are fighting a losing battle, UN admits". The Guardian. 
  107. ^ "Millions face famine as crop disease rages". The Guardian. 22 April 2007. 
  108. ^ "Billions at risk from wheat super-blight". New Scientist Magazine (2598): 6–7. 2007-04-03. Retrieved 2007-04-19. 
  109. ^ "Shrinking African Lake Offers Lesson on Finite Resources". National Geographic News.
  110. ^ Eating Fossil Fuels |
  111. ^ Agriculture Meets Peak Oil
  112. ^ Asia Times Online :: South Asia news - India grows a grain crisis
  113. ^ Global Water Shortages May Lead to Food Shortages-Aquifer Depletion
  114. ^ Vanishing Himalayan Glaciers Threaten a Billion
  115. ^ Bagla, Pallava (December 5, 2009). "'"Himalayan glaciers melting deadline 'a mistake. BBC. Retrieved 2009-12-12. 
  116. ^ Big melt threatens millions, says UN
  117. ^ Glaciers melting at alarming speed
  118. ^ Ganges, Indus may not survive: climatologists
  119. ^ Himalaya glaciers melt unnoticed
  120. ^ Fraser, E. 2007a. Travelling in antique lands: Studying past famines to understand present vulnerabilities to climate change. Climate Change 83:495-514.
  121. ^ Fraser, E. 2003. Social vulnerability and ecological fragility: building bridges between social and natural sciences using the Irish Potato Famine as a case study. Conservation Ecology 7:9: on line.
  122. ^ Fraser, E. D. G. 2006. Food system vulnerability: using past famines to help understand how food systems may adapt to climate change. Ecological Complexity 3:328-335.
  123. ^ Simelton, E., E. Fraser, and M. Termansen. 2009. Typologies of crop-drought vulnerability: an empirical analysis of the socio-economic factors that influence the sensitivity and resilience to drought of three major food crops in China (1961–2001) Environmental Science & Policy 12:438-452.
  124. ^ Simelton, E., E. Fraser, M. Termansen, T. Benton, S. Gosling, A. South, N. Arnell, A. Challinor, A. Dougill, and P. Forster. 2012. The socioeconomics of food crop production and climate change vulnerability: a global scale quantitative analysis of how grain crops are sensitive to drought. Food Security 4:163-179.
  125. ^ Fraser, E. D. G., E. Simelton, M. Termansen, S. N. Gosling, and A. South. 2013. ‘Vulnerability hotspots’: integrating socio-economic and hydrological models to identify where cereal production may decline due to climate change induced drought. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 170:195-205.
  126. ^ This Day in History 1941: Siege of Leningrad begins
  127. ^ Blix & Svensk näringsforskning 1971.
  128. ^ Brown & Eckholm 1974.
  129. ^ Scrimshaw 1987.
  130. ^ Ravallion 1996, p. 2.
  131. ^ Cuny 1999.
  132. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica 2010.
  133. ^ a b c d Chaudhari 1984, p. 135.
  134. ^ "Climate Change and Famine". Physicians for Social Responsibility. Retrieved 23 March 2013. 
  135. ^ "'Top 10 culprits' for Horn of Africa hunger". BBC News. July 26, 2011.
  136. ^ Ravallion 1996, p. 1.
  137. ^ "Poor studies will always be with us", The Telegraph
  138. ^ Don O'Reilly, "Hundred Years' War: Joan of Arc and the Siege of Orléans",
  139. ^ "The Great Leap Backward". The New York Times. 1997-02-16. Retrieved 2011-10-22. 
  140. ^ Akbar, Arifa (17 September 2010). "'"Mao's Great Leap Forward 'killed 45 million in four years. The Independent (London). Retrieved 20 September 2010. 
  141. ^ a b c "Ending Famine, Simply by Ignoring the Experts", New York Times, 2 Dec 2007
  142. ^ "Obama enlists major powers to aid poor farmers with $15 billion", New York Times, 9 Jul 2009
  143. ^ Jan Borlaug, "Forgotten benefactor of humanity", The Atlantic
  144. ^ In Africa, prosperity from seeds falls short
  145. ^ How a Kenyan village tripled its corn harvest
  146. ^ Zambia: fertile but hungry
  147. ^ a b c d UN aid debate: give cash not food?
  148. ^ Cash roll-out to help hunger hot spots
  149. ^ Andrew S. Natsios (Administrator U.S. Agency for International Development)
  150. ^ Let them eat micronutrients
  151. ^ memorandum to former Representative Steve Solarz (United States, Democratic Party, New York) - July 1994
  152. ^ The Hidden Hunger
  153. ^ Firms target nutrition for the poor
  154. ^ a b THE TREATMENT OF DIARRHOEA, A manual for physicians and other senior health workers
    World Health Organization, 2005. Page 10 (14 in PDF) continues: " . . . The aim is to give as much nutrient rich food as the child will accept. Most children with watery diarrhoea regain their appetite after dehydration is corrected, whereas those with bloody diarrhoea often eat poorly until the illness resolves. These children should be encouraged to resume normal feeding as soon as possible. . . " See also "8. MANAGEMENT OF DIARRHOEA WITH SEVERE MALNUTRITION," pages 22-24 (26-28 in PDF).
  155. ^ a b National Guidelines for the Management of Severely Malnourished Children in Bangladesh, Institute of Public Health Nutrition, Directorate General of Health Services, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, May 2008. See esp. pages 21-22 (22-23 in PDF) and page 24 (25 in PDF).
  156. ^ Community Health Worker Training Materials for Cholera Prevention and Control, CDC, slides at back are dated 11/17/2010. Page 7 states " . . . Continue to breastfeed your baby if the baby has watery diarrhea, even when traveling to get treatment. Adults and older children should continue to eat frequently."
  157. ^,9171,1914655,00.html Can one pill tame the illness no one wants to talk about?
  158. ^ A model of African food aid is now in trouble


  1. ^ Sen is known for his assertion that famines do not occur in democracies in much the same way that Adam Smith is associated with the "invisible hand" and Joseph Schumpeter with "creative destruction".[98]
  2. ^ Initial reports erroneously gave the year 2035 rather than the correct 2350.


See also

Famine personified as an allegory is found in some cultures, e.g. one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Christian tradition, the fear gorta of Irish folklore, or the Wendigo of Algonquian tradition.

Society and culture

Since 2003, many of the most important organizations in famine relief, such as the World Food Programme and the U.S. Agency for International Development, have adopted a five-level scale measuring intensity and magnitude. The intensity scale uses both livelihoods' measures and measurements of mortality and child malnutrition to categorize a situation as food secure, food insecure, food crisis, famine, severe famine, and extreme famine. The number of deaths determines the magnitude designation, with under 1000 fatalities defining a "minor famine" and a "catastrophic famine" resulting in over 1,000,000 deaths.

The experiences of famine relief organizations throughout the world over the 1980s and 1990s resulted in at least two major developments: the "livelihoods approach" and the increased use of nutrition indicators to determine the severity of a crisis. Individuals and groups in food stressful situations will attempt to cope by rationing consumption, finding alternative means to supplement income, etc., before taking desperate measures, such as selling off plots of agricultural land. When all means of self-support are exhausted, the affected population begins to migrate in search of food or fall victim to outright mass starvation. Famine may thus be viewed partially as a social phenomenon, involving markets, the price of food, and social support structures. A second lesson drawn was the increased use of rapid nutrition assessments, in particular of children, to give a quantitative measure of the famine's severity.

In modern times, local and political governments and Indian Famine Codes devised by the British in the 1880s. The Codes listed three stages of food insecurity: near-scarcity, scarcity and famine, and were highly influential in the creation of subsequent famine warning or measurement systems. The early warning system developed to monitor the region inhabited by the Turkana people in northern Kenya also has three levels, but links each stage to a pre-planned response to mitigate the crisis and prevent its deterioration

Levels of food insecurity


WHO and other sources recommend that malnourished children - and adults who also have [154]

A Somali boy receiving treatment for malnutrition at a health facility in Hilaweyn during the drought of 2011.

Deficient micronutrients can be provided through fortifying foods.[152] Fortifying foods such as peanut butter sachets (see Plumpy'Nut) have revolutionized emergency feeding in humanitarian emergencies because they can be eaten directly from the packet, do not require refrigeration or mixing with scarce clean water, can be stored for years and, vitally, can be absorbed by extremely ill children.[153]

However, for people in a drought living a long way from and with limited access to markets, delivering food may be the most appropriate way to help.[147] Fred Cuny stated that "the chances of saving lives at the outset of a relief operation are greatly reduced when food is imported. By the time it arrives in the country and gets to people, many will have died."[149] US Law, which requires buying food at home rather than where the hungry live, is inefficient because approximately half of what is spent goes for transport.[150] Fred Cuny further pointed out "studies of every recent famine have shown that food was available in-country — though not always in the immediate food deficit area" and "even though by local standards the prices are too high for the poor to purchase it, it would usually be cheaper for a donor to buy the hoarded food at the inflated price than to import it from abroad."[151]

There is a growing realization among aid groups that giving cash or cash vouchers instead of food is a cheaper, faster, and more efficient way to deliver help to the hungry, particularly in areas where food is available but unaffordable.[147] The United Nations' World Food Program (WFP), the biggest non-governmental distributor of food, announced that it will begin distributing cash and vouchers instead of food in some areas, which Josette Sheeran, the WFP's executive director, described as a "revolution" in food aid.[147][148] The aid agency Concern Worldwide is piloting a method through a mobile phone operator, Safaricom, which runs a money transfer program that allows cash to be sent from one part of the country to another.[147]


The World Bank and some rich nations press nations that depend on them for aid to cut back or eliminate subsidized agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, in the name of privatization even as the United States and Europe extensively subsidized their own farmers.[146]

The effort to bring modern agricultural techniques found in the Western world, such as nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides, to Asia, called the Green Revolution, resulted in decreases in malnutrition similar to those seen earlier in Western nations. This was possible because of existing infrastructure and institutions that are in short supply in Africa, such as a system of roads or public seed companies that made seeds available.[144] Supporting farmers in areas of food insecurity, through such measures as free or subsidized fertilizers and seeds, increases food harvest and reduces food prices.[141][145]

Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.

Long term measures to improve food security, include investment in modern agriculture techniques, such as fertilizers and irrigation.[142] World Bank strictures restrict government subsidies for farmers, and increasing use of fertilizers is opposed by some environmental groups because of its unintended consequences: adverse effects on water supplies and habitat.[141][143]

Food security

Famine prevention

Malawi ended its famine by subsidizing farmers against the strictures of the World Bank.[141] During the 1973 Wollo Famine in Ethiopia, food was shipped out of Wollo to the capital city of Addis Ababa, where it could command higher prices. In the late-1970s and early-1980s, residents of the dictatorships of Ethiopia and Sudan suffered massive famines, but the democracy of Botswana avoided them, despite also having a severe drop in national food production. In Somalia, famine occurred because of a failed state.

In 1958 in China, Mao Zedong's Communist Government began the Great Leap Forward campaign, aimed at rapidly industrializing the country.[139] The government forcibly took control of agriculture. Barely enough grain was left for the peasants, and starvation set in many rural areas. Exportation of grain continued despite the famine to conceal the problem. While the famine is attributed to unintended consequences, it is believed that the government refused to acknowledge the problem, thereby further contributing to the deaths. In many instances, peasants were persecuted. Between 20 to 45 million people perished in this famine, making it one of the most deadly famines to date.[140]

In 1932, under the USSR, Ukraine experienced one of their largest famines when between 2.4 and 7.5 millions peasants died as a result of state sponsored famine. It was termed Holodomor, suggesting that it was a deliberate repression to eliminate protesters of collectivization. Forced grain quotas imposed upon the rural peasants and brutal terror contributed to the widespread famine. The Soviet government continued to deny the problem and did not provide for victims nor accept foreign aid.

The government's forced collectivization of agriculture was one of the main causes of the Soviet famine of 1932–1933.

In certain cases, such as the Great Leap Forward in China (which produced the largest famine in absolute numbers), North Korea in the mid-1990s, or Zimbabwe in the early-2000s, famine can occur because of government policy.

State-sponsored famines

Famines have also been caused by volcanism. The 1815 eruption of the Mount Tambora volcano in Indonesia caused crop failures and famines worldwide and caused the worst famine of the 19th century. The current consensus of the scientific community is that the aerosols and dust released into the upper atmosphere causes cooler temperatures by preventing the sun's energy from reaching the ground. The same mechanism is theorized to be caused by very large meteorite impacts to the extent of causing mass extinctions.

The failure of a harvest or change in conditions, such as drought, can create a situation whereby large numbers of people continue to live where the carrying capacity of the land has temporarily dropped radically. Famine is often associated with subsistence agriculture. The total absence of agriculture in an economically strong area does not cause famine; Arizona and other wealthy regions import the vast majority of their food, since such regions produce sufficient economic goods for trade.

Many famines are caused by imbalance of food production compared to the large populations of countries whose population exceeds the regional carrying capacity . Historically, famines have occurred from agricultural problems such as drought, crop failure, or pestilence. Changing weather patterns, the ineffectiveness of medieval governments in dealing with crises, wars, and epidemic diseases such as the Black Death helped to cause hundreds of famines in Europe during the Middle Ages, including 95 in Britain and 75 in France.[137] In France, the Hundred Years' War, crop failures and epidemics reduced the population by two-thirds.[138]

Climate and population pressure

Some elements make a particular region more vulnerable to famine. These include poverty, population growth,[135] an inappropriate social infrastructure, a suppressive political regime, and a weak or under-prepared government.[136]

According to the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), global climate change is additionally challenging the Earth's ability to produce food, potentially leading to famine.[134]

Food shortages in a population are caused either by a lack of food or by difficulties in food distribution; it may be worsened by natural climate fluctuations and by extreme political conditions related to oppressive government or warfare. The conventional explanation until 1981 for the cause of famines was the Food availability decline (FAD) hypothesis. The assumption was that the central cause of all famines was a decline in food availability.[132] However, FAD could not explain why only a certain section of the population such as the agricultural laborer was affected by famines while others were insulated from famines.[133] Based on the studies of some recent famines, the decisive role of FAD has been questioned and it has been suggested that the causal mechanism for precipitating starvation includes many variables other than just decline of food availability. According to this view, famines are a result of entitlements, the theory being proposed is called the "failure of exchange entitlements" or FEE.[133] A person may own various commodities that can be exchanged in a market economy for the other commodities he or she needs. The exchange can happen via trading or production or through a combination of the two. These entitlements are called trade-based or production-based entitlements. Per this proposed view, famines are precipitated due to a breakdown in the ability of the person to exchange his entitlements.[133] An example of famines due to FEE is the inability of an agricultural laborer to exchange his primary entitlement, i.e., labor for rice when his employment became erratic or was completely eliminated.[133]

  • Blix – Widespread food shortage leading to significant rise in regional death rates.[127]
  • Brown and Eckholm – Sudden, sharp reduction in food supply resulting in widespread hunger.[128]
  • Scrimshaw – Sudden collapse in level of food consumption of large numbers of people.[129]
  • Ravallion – Unusually high mortality with unusually severe threat to food intake of some segments of a population.[130]
  • Cuny – A set of conditions that occurs when large numbers of people in a region cannot obtain sufficient food, resulting in widespread, acute malnutrition.[131]

Definitions of famines are based on three different categories – these include food supply-based, food consumption-based and mortality-based definitions. Some definitions of famines are:

A victim of starvation in besieged Leningrad suffering from dystrophia in 1941.[126]


Evan Fraser, a geographer at the drought have savings or skills they may be able to do all right despite the bad weather. The final line of defense is created by the formal institutions present in a society. Governments, churches, or NGOs must be willing and able to mount effective relief efforts. Pulling this together, Evan Fraser argues that if an ecosystem is resilient enough, it may be able to withstand weather-related shocks. But if these shocks overwhelm the ecosystem’s line of defense, it is necessary for the household to adapt using its skills and savings. If a problem is too big for the family or household, then people must rely on the third line of defense, which is whether or not the formal institutions present in a society are able to provide help. Evan Fraser concludes that in almost every situation where an environmental problem triggered a famine you see a failure in each of these three lines of defense.[122] Hence, understanding how climate change may cause famines in the future requires combining both an assessment of local socio-economic and environmental factors along with climate models that predict where bad weather may occur in the future[123][124][125]

After China and India, there is a second tier of smaller countries with large water deficits — Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Mexico, and Pakistan. Four of these already import a large share of their grain. Only Pakistan remains marginally self-sufficient. But with a population expanding by 4 million a year, it will also soon turn to the world market for grain.[113] According to a UN climate report, the Himalayan glaciers that are the principal dry-season water sources of Asia's biggest rivers - Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Yellow - could disappear by 2350 as temperatures rise and human demand rises.[note 2][114][115] Approximately 2.4 billion people live in the drainage basin of the Himalayan rivers.[116] India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar could experience floods followed by severe droughts in coming decades.[117] In India alone, the Ganges provides water for drinking and farming for more than 500 million people.[118][119]

According to geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer, coming decades could see rising food prices without relief and massive starvation on a global level.[111] Water deficits, which are already spurring heavy grain imports in numerous smaller countries, may soon do the same in larger countries, such as China or India.[112] The water tables are falling in many countries (including Northern China, the US, and India) due to widespread overconsumption. Other countries affected include Pakistan, Iran, and Mexico. This will eventually lead to water scarcity and cutbacks in grain harvest. Even with the overpumping of its aquifers, China has developed a grain deficit, contributing to the upward pressure on grain prices. Most of the three billion people projected to be added worldwide by mid-century will be born in countries already experiencing water shortages.

David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, and Mario Giampietro, senior researcher at the National Research Institute on Food and Nutrition (INRAN), place in their study Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy the maximum U.S. population for a sustainable economy at 200 million.[110]

Lake Chad in a 2001 satellite image, with the actual lake in blue. The lake has shrunk by 95% since the 1960s.[109]

Beginning in the 20th century, nitrogen fertilizers, new pesticides, desert farming, and other agricultural technologies began to be used to increase food production, in part to combat famine. Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution influenced agriculture, world grain production increased by 250%. However, as early as 1995, there were signs that these new developments may contribute to the decline of arable land (e.g. persistence of pesticides leading to soil contamination and decline of area available for farming). Developed nations have shared these technologies with developing nations with a famine problem.

The Guardian reports that in 2007 approximately 40% of the world's agricultural land is seriously degraded.[99] If current trends of soil degradation continue in Africa, the continent might be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025, according to UNU's Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa.[35] As of late 2007, increased farming for use in biofuels,[100] along with world oil prices at nearly $100 a barrel,[101] has pushed up the price of grain used to feed poultry and dairy cows and other cattle, causing higher prices of wheat (up 58%), soybean (up 32%), and maize (up 11%) over the year.[102][103] In 2007 Food riots have taken place in many countries across the world.[104][105][106] An epidemic of stem rust, which is destructive to wheat and is caused by race Ug99, has in 2007 spread across Africa and into Asia.[107][108]

Risk of future famine

Even though the theories of Thomas Malthus would predict that famines reduce the size of the population commensurate with available food resources, in fact even the most severe famines have rarely dented population growth for more than a few years. The mortality in China in 1958–61, Bengal in 1943, and Ethiopia in 1983–85 was all made up by a growing population over just a few years. Of greater long-term demographic impact is emigration: Ireland was chiefly depopulated after the 1840s famines by waves of emigration.

The demographic impacts of famine are sharp. Mortality is concentrated among children and the elderly. A consistent demographic fact is that in all recorded famines, male mortality exceeds female, even in those populations (such as northern India and Pakistan) where there is a male longevity advantage during normal times. Reasons for this may include greater female resilience under the pressure of malnutrition, and possibly female's naturally higher percentage of body fat. Famine is also accompanied by lower fertility. Famines therefore leave the reproductive core of a population—adult women—lesser affected compared to other population categories, and post-famine periods are often characterized a "rebound" with increased births.

A woman, a man and a child, all three dead from starvation. Russia, 1921.

Noting that modern famines are sometimes aggravated by misguided economic policies, political design to impoverish or marginalize certain populations, or acts of war, political economists have investigated the political conditions under which famine is prevented. Economist Amartya Sen[note 1] states that the liberal institutions that exist in India, including competitive elections and a free press, have played a major role in preventing famine in that country since independence. Alex de Waal has developed this theory to focus on the "political contract" between rulers and people that ensures famine prevention, noting the rarity of such political contracts in Africa, and the danger that international relief agencies will undermine such contracts through removing the locus of accountability for famines from national governments.

Frances Moore Lappé, later co-founder of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) argued in Diet for a Small Planet (1971) that vegetarian diets can provide food for larger populations, with the same resources, compared to omnivorous diets.

The Green Revolution was widely viewed as an answer to famine in the 1970s and 1980s. Between 1950 and 1984, hybrid strains of high-yielding crops transformed agriculture around the globe and world grain production increased by 250%.[97] Some criticize the process, stating that these new high-yielding crops require more chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can harm the environment. Although these high-yielding crops make it technically possible to feed more people, there are indications that regional food production has peaked in many world sectors, due to certain strategies associated with intensive agriculture such as groundwater overdrafting and overuse of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.

Despite repeated stated intentions by the world's leaders to end hunger and famine, famine remains a chronic threat in much of Africa and Asia. In July 2005, the Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia were in danger of starvation due to the combination of severe drought and military conflicts.[96] In 2006, the most serious humanitarian crisis in Africa was in Sudan's region Darfur.

Relief technologies, including immunization, improved public health infrastructure, general food rations and supplementary feeding for vulnerable children, has provided temporary mitigation to the mortality impact of famines, while leaving their economic consequences unchanged, and not solving the underlying issue of too large a regional population relative to food production capability. Humanitarian crises may also arise from genocide campaigns, civil wars, refugee flows and episodes of extreme violence and state collapse, creating famine conditions among the affected populations.

A starving child during the 1869 famine in Algeria.

Today, famine is most widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa, but with exhaustion of food resources, overdrafting of groundwater, wars, internal struggles, and economic failure, famine continues to be a worldwide problem with hundreds of millions of people suffering.[95] These famines cause widespread malnutrition and impoverishment; The famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s had an immense death toll, although Asian famines of the 20th century have also produced extensive death tolls. Modern African famines are characterized by widespread destitution and malnutrition, with heightened mortality confined to young children.

Famine today

According to Daniel Lord Smail, "'Famine cannibalism' was until recently a regular feature of life in the islands of the Massim near New Guinea and of some other societies of Southeast Asia and the Pacific."[94]

There are other documented episodes of famine in various islands of Polynesia, such as occurred in Ka'u, Hawai'i in 1868.[93]

Easter Island was hit by a great famine between the 15th and 18th centuries. Hunger and subsequent cannibalism was caused by overpopulation and depletion of natural resources as a result of deforestation, partly because work on megalithic monuments required a lot of wood.[92]


Brazil's 1877–78 Grande Seca (Great Drought), the worst in Brazil's history,[89] caused approximately half a million deaths.[90] The one from 1915 was devastating too.[91]

The pre-Columbian Americans often dealt with severe food shortages and famines.[87] The persistent drought around 850 AD coincided with the collapse of Classic Maya civilization, and the famine of One Rabbit (AD 1454) was a major catastrophe in Mexico.[88]

Malnourished child during Brazil's 1877–78 Grande Seca (Great Drought).

Latin America

Famine even struck in Western Europe during the Second World War. In the Netherlands, the Hongerwinter of 1944 killed approximately 30,000 people. Some other areas of Europe also experienced famine at the same time.

The 872 days of the Siege of Leningrad (1941–1944) caused unparalleled famine in the Leningrad region through disruption of utilities, water, energy and food supplies. This resulted in the deaths of about one million people.[86]

The Hunger Plan, i.e. the Nazi plan to starve large sections of the Soviet population, caused the deaths of many. The Russian Academy of Sciences in 1995 reported civilian victims in the USSR at German hands, including Jews, totalled 13.7 million dead, 20% of the 68 million persons in the occupied USSR. This included 4.1 million famine and disease deaths in occupied territory. There were an additional estimated 3 million famine deaths in areas of the USSR not under German occupation.[85]

Famines continued in the Soviet era, the most notorious being the Holodomor in various parts of the country, especially the Volga, and the Ukrainian and northern Kazakh SSR's during the winter of 1932–1933. The Soviet famine of 1932–1933 is nowadays reckoned to have cost an estimated 6 million lives.[83] The last major famine in the USSR happened in 1947 due to the severe drought and the mismanagement of grain reserves by the Soviet government.[84]

Starving Russian children during the Russian famine of 1921–22, which killed an estimated 5 million. Circa 1922.

Famine still occurred in Eastern Europe during the 20th century. Droughts and famines in Imperial Russia are known to have happened every 10 to 13 years, with average droughts happening every 5 to 7 years. Russia experienced eleven major famines between 1845 and 1922, one of the worst being the famine of 1891–2.[82]

20th century

Iceland was also hit by a potato famine between 1862 and 1864. Lesser known than the Irish potato famine, the Icelandic potato famine was caused by the same blight that ravaged most of Europe during the 1840s. About 5 percent of Iceland's population died during the famine.

Other areas of Europe have known famines much more recently. France saw famines as recently as the 19th century. The Great Famine in Ireland, 1846–1851, caused by the failure of the potato crop over a few years, resulted in 1,000,000 dead and another 2,000,000 refugees fleeing to Britain, Australia and the United States.[81]

Depiction of victims of the Great Famine in Ireland, 1845-1849
19th century

According to Bryson (1974), there were thirty-seven famine years in Iceland between 1500 and 1804.[80] In 1783 the volcano Laki in south-central Iceland erupted. The lava caused little direct damage, but ash and sulphur dioxide spewed out over most of the country, causing three-quarters of the island's livestock to perish. In the following famine, around ten thousand people died, one-fifth of the population of Iceland. [Asimov, 1984, 152-153]

There were sixteen good harvests and 111 famine years in northern Italy from 1451 to 1767.[78] According to Stephen L. Dyson and Robert J. Rowland, "The Jesuits of Cagliari [in Sardinia] recorded years during the late 1500s "of such hunger and so sterile that the majority of the people could sustain life only with wild ferns and other weeds" ... During the terrible famine of 1680, some 80,000 persons, out of a total population of 250,000, are said to have died, and entire villages were devastated..."[79]

The Great Famine, which lasted from 1770 until 1771, killed about one tenth of Czech lands’ population, or 250,000 inhabitants, and radicalised countrysides leading to peasant uprisings.[77]

According to Scott and Duncan (2002), "Eastern Europe experienced more than 150 recorded famines between AD 1500 and 1700 and there were 100 hunger years and 121 famine years in Russia between AD 971 and 1974."[76]

The period of 1740–43 saw frigid winters and summer droughts, which led to famine across Europe and a major spike in mortality.[74] The winter 1740-41 was unusually cold, possibly because of volcanic activity.[75]

18th century

The Great Famine of 1695–1697 may have killed a third of the Finnish population.[71] and roughly 10% of Norway's population.[72] Death rates rose in Scandinavia between 1740 and 1800 as the result of a series of crop failures.[73] For instance, the Finnish famine of 1866–1868 killed 15% of the population.

As late as the 1690s, Scotland experienced famine which reduced the population of parts of Scotland by at least 15%.[70]

Illustration of starvation in northern Sweden, Finnish famine of 1866–1868

Over two million people died in two famines in France between 1693 and 1710. Both famines were made worse by ongoing wars.[69]

Devastating harvest failures afflicted the northern Italian economy from 1618 to 1621, and it did not recover fully for centuries. There were serious famines in the late-1640s and less severe ones in the 1670s throughout northern Italy.

The years around 1620 saw another period of famine sweep across Europe. These famines were generally less severe than the famines of twenty-five years earlier, but they were nonetheless quite serious in many areas. Perhaps the worst famine since 1600, the great famine in Finland in 1696, killed one-third of the population. [1] PDF (589 KiB)

17th century

All areas of Europe were badly affected by the famine in these periods, especially rural areas. The Netherlands was able to escape most of the damaging effects of the famine, though the 1590s were still difficult years there. Amsterdam's grain trade with the Baltic, guaranteed a food supply.

The great famine of the 1590s began the period of famine and decline in the 17th century. The price of grain, all over Europe was high, as was the population. Various types of people were vulnerable to the succession of bad harvests that occurred throughout the 1590s in different regions. The increasing number of wage labourers in the countryside were vulnerable because they had no food of their own, and their meager living was not enough to purchase the expensive grain of a bad-crop year. Town labourers were also at risk because their wages would be insufficient to cover the cost of grain, and, to make matters worse, they often received less money in bad-crop years since the disposable income of the wealthy was spent on grain. Often, unemployment would be the result of the increase in grain prices, leading to ever-increasing numbers of urban poor.

The 1590s saw the worst famines in centuries across all of Europe. Famine had been relatively rare during the 16th century. The economy and population had grown steadily as subsistence populations tend to when there is an extended period of relative peace (most of the time). Subsistence peasant populations will almost always increase when possible since the peasants will try to spread the work to as many hands as possible. Although peasants in areas of high population density, such as northern Italy, had learned to increase the yields of their lands through techniques such as promiscuous culture, they were still quite vulnerable to famines, forcing them to work their land even more intensively.

During the Little Ice Age from the 15th century to the 18th century, famines in Europe became more frequent. This often led to a rise in conspiracy theories concerning the causes behind these famines, such as the Pacte de Famine in France.[68]

An engraving from Goya's Disasters of War, showing starving women, doubtless inspired by the terrible famine that struck Madrid in 1811-1812.
16th century

One famine would often lead to difficulties in the following years because of lack of seed stock or disruption of routine, or perhaps because of less-available labour. Famines were often interpreted as signs of God's displeasure. They were seen as the removal, by God, of His gifts to the people of the Earth. Elaborate religious processions and rituals were made to prevent God's wrath in the form of famine.

Famine was a very destabilizing and devastating occurrence. The prospect of starvation led people to take desperate measures. When scarcity of food became apparent to peasants, they would sacrifice long-term prosperity for short-term survival. They would kill their draught animals, leading to lowered production in subsequent years. They would eat their seed corn, sacrificing next year's crop in the hope that more seed could be found. Once those means had been exhausted, they would take to the road in search of food. They migrated to the cities where merchants from other areas would be more likely to sell their food, as cities had a stronger purchasing power than did rural areas. Cities also administered relief programs and bought grain for their populations so that they could keep order. With the confusion and desperation of the migrants, crime would often follow them. Many peasants resorted to banditry in order to acquire enough to eat.

The Great Famine of 1315–1317 (or to 1322) was the first major food crisis to strike Europe in the 14th century. Millions in northern Europe died over an extended number of years, marking a clear end to the earlier period of growth and prosperity during the 11th and 12th centuries.[64] Starting with bad weather in the spring of 1315, widespread crop failures lasted until the summer of 1317, from which Europe did not fully recover until 1322. It was a period marked by extreme levels of criminal activity, disease and mass death, infanticide, and cannibalism. It had consequences for Church, State, European society and future calamities to follow in the 14th century. There were 95 famines in medieval Britain,[65] and 75 or more in medieval France.[66] More than 10% of England's population, or at least 500,000 people, may have died during the famine of 1315–1316.[67]

Middle Ages


Lebanon was dependent on food imports in the early 20th century, and experienced famine during the First World War. 100,000 people, nearly a quarter of the population, died.[63]

The Great Persian Famine of 1870–1871 is believed to have caused the death of 1.5 million persons (20–25 percent of the population) in Persia (present–day Iran).[62]

Middle East

In 1966, there was a close call in Bihar, when the United States allocated 900,000 tons of grain to fight the famine. Three years of drought in India resulted in an estimated 1.5 million deaths from starvation and disease.[61]

The observations of the Famine Commission of 1880 support the notion that food distribution is more to blame for famines than food scarcity. They observed that each province in British India, including Burma, had a surplus of foodgrains, and the annual surplus was 5.16 million tons (Bhatia, 1970). At that time, annual export of rice and other grains from India was approximately one million tons.

Romesh Chunder Dutt argued as early as 1900, and present-day scholars such as Amartya Sen agree, that some historic famines were a product of both uneven rainfall and British economic and administrative policies, which since 1857 had led to the seizure and conversion of local farmland to foreign-owned plantations, restrictions on internal trade, heavy taxation of Indian citizens to support British expeditions in Afghanistan (see The Second Anglo-Afghan War), inflationary measures that increased the price of food, and substantial exports of staple crops from India to Britain. (Dutt, 1900 and 1902; Srivastava, 1968; Sen, 1982; Bhatia, 1985.) Some British citizens, such as William Digby, agitated for policy reforms and famine relief, but Lord Lytton, the governing British viceroy in India, opposed such changes in the belief that they would stimulate shirking by Indian workers. The first, the Bengal famine of 1770, is estimated to have taken around 10 million lives — one-third of Bengal's population at the time. Other notable famines include the Great Famine of 1876–78, in which 6.1 million to 10.3 million people died[59] and the Indian famine of 1899–1900, in which 1.25 to 10 million people died.[59] The famines were ended by the 20th century with the exception of the Bengal Famine of 1943–44— even though there were no crop failures —killing 1.5 million to 3 million Bengalis during World War II.

A child suffering extreme starvation in India, 1972

Owing to its almost entire dependence upon the monsoon rains, India is vulnerable to crop failures, which upon occasion deepen into famine.[58] There were 14 famines in India between the 11th and 17th centuries (Bhatia, 1985). For example, during the 1022–1033 Great famines in India entire provinces were depopulated. Famine in Deccan killed at least 2 million people in 1702-1704. B.M. Bhatia believes that the earlier famines were localised, and it was only after 1860, during the British rule, that famine came to signify general shortage of foodgrains in the country. There were approximately 25 major famines spread through states such as Tamil Nadu in the south, and Bihar and Bengal in the east during the latter half of the 19th century.


Various famines have occurred in Vietnam. Japanese occupation during World War II caused the Vietnamese Famine of 1945, which caused 2 million deaths, or 10% of the population then.[57] Following the unification of the country after the Vietnam War, Vietnam experienced a food shortage in the 1980s, which prompted many people to flee the country.


An estimated 600,000 died of starvation (other estimates range from 200,000 to 3.5 million).[55] North Korea has not yet regained food self-sufficiency and relies on external food aid from China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States. While Woo-Cumings have focused on the FAD side of the famine, Moon argues that FAD shifted the incentive structure of the authoritarian regime to react in a way that forced millions of disenfranchised people to starve to death (Moon, 2009).[56]

Famine struck North Korea in the mid-1990s, set off by unprecedented floods. This Autarkic urban, industrial state depended on massive inputs of subsidised goods, including fossil fuels, primarily from the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. When the Soviet collapse and China's marketization switched trade to a hard currency, full price basis, North Korea's economy collapsed. The vulnerable agricultural sector experienced a massive failure in 1995–96, expanding to full-fledged famine by 1996–99.

North Korean famine in the 1990s

No international relief would come until the Vietnamese army invaded in 1979 and liberated the country. While Pol Pot was in power, between one and three million people died out of a total population of eight million. Many were executed. Most died from malnourishment and exhaustion as a result of the famine caused by inept and negligent government officials.[52][53][54]

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered the capital of Phnom Penh and took control of Cambodia. With the application of the fundamental ideals of communism, the new government under Pol Pot drove all urban residents into the countryside to work on communal farm and civil work projects. Without external assistance, with 75% of the necessary draft animals dead from the previous four years of war, agricultural guidelines written by idealists, and work overseen by zealous cadre, the country soon sunk into the depths of famine.

Skulls of victims of the famine in Cambodia, caused by the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodian killing fields

The exact number of famine deaths during 1958–61 is difficult to determine, and estimates range from 18[48] to at least 42 million[49] people, with a further 30 million cancelled or delayed births.[50] It was only when the famine had wrought its worst that Mao was forced to reverse agricultural collectivisation policies, which were effectively dismantled in 1978. China has not experienced a famine of the proportions of the Great Leap Forward since 1961.[51]

The largest famine of the 20th century, and almost certainly of all time, was the 1958–61 Great Leap Forward famine in China. The immediate causes of this famine lay in Mao Zedong's ill-fated attempt to transform China from an agricultural nation to an industrial power in one huge leap. Communist Party cadres across China insisted that peasants abandon their farms for collective farms, and begin to produce steel in small foundries, often melting down their farm instruments in the process. Collectivisation undermined incentives for the investment of labor and resources in agriculture; unrealistic plans for decentralized metal production sapped needed labor; unfavorable weather conditions; and communal dining halls encouraged overconsumption of available food.[47] Such was the centralized control of information and the intense pressure on party cadres to report only good news—such as production quotas met or exceeded—that information about the escalating disaster was effectively suppressed. When the leadership did become aware of the scale of the famine, it did little to respond, and continued to ban any discussion of the cataclysm. This blanket suppression of news was so effective that very few Chinese citizens were aware of the scale of the famine, and the greatest peacetime demographic disaster of the 20th century only became widely known twenty years later, when the veil of censorship began to lift.

Great Leap Forward

When a stressed monarchy shifted from state management and direct shipments of grain to monetary charity in the mid-19th century, the system broke down. Thus the 1867–68 famine under the Tongzhi Restoration was successfully relieved but the Great North China Famine of 1877–78, caused by drought across northern China, was a catastrophe. The province of Shanxi was substantially depopulated as grains ran out, and desperately starving people stripped forests, fields, and their very houses for food. Estimated mortality is 9.5 to 13 million people.[46] (Mike Davis,

The period from 1850 to 1873 saw, as a result of the Taiping Rebellion, drought, and famine, the population of China drop by over 60 million people.[45] China's Qing Dynasty bureaucracy, which devoted extensive attention to minimizing famines, is credited with averting a series of famines following El Niño-Southern Oscillation-linked droughts and floods. These events are comparable, though somewhat smaller in scale, to the ecological trigger events of China's vast 19th-century famines. (Pierre-Etienne Will, Bureaucracy and Famine) Qing China carried out its relief efforts, which included vast shipments of food, a requirement that the rich open their storehouses to the poor, and price regulation, as part of a state guarantee of subsistence to the peasantry (known as ming-sheng).

Japan experienced more than 130 famines between 1603 and 1868.[44]

Chinese scholars had kept count of 1,828 instances of famine from 108 BC to 1911 in one province or another — an average of close to one famine per year.[42] From 1333 to 1337 a terrible famine killed 6 million Chinese. The four famines of 1810, 1811, 1846, and 1849 are said to have killed no fewer than 45 million people.[43]

Chinese officials engaged in famine relief, 19th-century engraving

Far East

Against a backdrop of conventional interventions through the state or markets, alternative initiatives have been pioneered to address the problem of food security. An example is the "Community Area-Based Development Approach" to agricultural development ("CABDA"), an NGO programme with the objective of providing an alternative approach to increasing food security in Africa. CABDA proceeds through specific areas of intervention such as the introduction of drought-resistant crops and new methods of food production such as agro-forestry. Piloted in Ethiopia in the 1990s it has spread to Malawi, Uganda, Eritrea and Kenya. In an analysis of the programme by the Overseas Development Institute, CABDA's focus on individual and community capacity-building is highlighted. This enables farmers to influence and drive their own development through community-run institutions, bringing food security to their household and region.[41]

Current initiatives

Recent famines in Africa include the 2005–06 Niger food crisis, the 2010 Sahel famine and the 2011 East Africa drought, where two consecutive missed rainy seasons precipitated the worst drought in East Africa in 60 years.[36][37] An estimated 50,000 to 150,000 people are reported to have died during the period.[38][39] In 2012, the Sahel drought put more than 10 million people in the western Sahel at risk of famine (according to a Methodist Relief & Development Fund (MRDF) aid expert), due to a month long heat wave.[40]

Famine-affected areas in the western Sahel belt during the 2012 drought.

Numerous factors make the food security situation in Africa tenuous, including political instability, armed conflict and civil war, corruption and mismanagement in handling food supplies, and trade policies that harm African agriculture. An example of a famine created by human rights abuses is the 1998 Sudan famine. AIDS is also having long-term economic effects on agriculture by reducing the available workforce, and is creating new vulnerabilities to famine by overburdening poor households. On the other hand, in the modern history of Africa on quite a few occasions famines acted as a major source of acute political instability.[34] In Africa, if current trends of population growth and soil degradation continue, the continent might be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025, according to United Nations University (UNU)'s Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa.[35]

Since the start of the 21st century, more effective early warning and humanitarian response actions have reduced the number of deaths by famine markedly. That said, many African countries are not self-sufficient in food production, relying on income from cash crops to import food. Agriculture in Africa is susceptible to climatic fluctuations, especially droughts which can reduce the amount of food produced locally. Other agricultural problems include soil infertility, land degradation and erosion, swarms of desert locusts, which can destroy whole crops, and livestock diseases. The Sahara spreads up to 30 miles per year.[33] The most serious famines have been caused by a combination of drought, misguided economic policies, and conflict. The 1983–85 famine in Ethiopia, for example, was the outcome of all these three factors, made worse by the Communist government's censorship of the emerging crisis. In Sudan at the same date, drought and economic crisis combined with denials of any food shortage by the then-government of President Gaafar Nimeiry, to create a crisis that killed perhaps 250,000 people—and helped bring about a popular uprising that overthrew Nimeiry.

Laure Souley holds her three-year-old daughter and an infant son at a MSF aide center during the 2005 famine, Maradi Niger
Recent years

In 1992 Somalia became a war zone with no effective government, police, or basic services after the collapse of the dictatorship led by Siad Barre and the split of power between warlords. This coincided with a massive drought, causing over 300,000 Somalians to perish.[32]


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