From New World Encyclopedia

A famine is a phenomenon in which a large percentage of the population of a region or country is so undernourished that death by starvation or other related diseases becomes increasingly common. Famine is associated both with natural causes, such as crop failure and pestilence, and artificial or man-made causes including war and genocide.

Many areas that suffered famines in the past have protected themselves through technological and social development. In spite of the much greater technological and economic resources of the modern world, however, famine still strikes many parts of the world, mostly in the developing nations. A prominent economist on the subject, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, has noted that no functioning democracy has ever suffered a famine.

In contemporary times, both governments and non-governmental organizations are active in delivering humanitarian aid to places where famine strikes. However, resources are often limited, and the cause of the famine itself may add to the difficulty of distributing food effectively. While some have suggested that population growth be curbed since food resources are finite and will become inadequate to ensure food security for all if the number of people in the world increases much more, others recognize that the threat of famine lies more in distribution and production than the potential for food in the world. The solution to famine, therefore, can be seen to lie in a change in human nature, rather than in external factors. Were everyone concerned for the health and well-being of all people throughout the world, with such an attitude and awareness people would find a way to produce and distribute sufficient food supplies and so avoid the suffering of famine.

Characteristics and effects

Famine can be defined as the catastrophic disruption of the social, economic, and institutional systems that provide for food production, distribution, and consumption. Famines not only kill masses of people, they also destroy livestock, which people depend upon as food and for their livelihood, extending the impact.

Famines also have a very strong impact on demographics. Mortality is concentrated among children and the elderly. A consistent demographic fact is that in all recorded famines, male mortality exceeds female. Possible reasons for this include greater female resilience under the pressure of malnutrition, and that women are more skilled at gathering and processing wild foods and other fall-back famine foods. Famines therefore leave the reproductive core of a population—adult women—less affected compared to other population categories, and post-famine periods are often characterized a "rebound" with increased births. Even though famines reduce the size of the population significantly, in fact even the most severe famines have rarely dented population growth for more than a few years. The mortality in China in 1958–1961, Bengal in 1943, and Ethiopia in 1983–1985 was all made up by a growing population in just a few years. Of greater long-term demographic impact is emigration: Ireland was chiefly depopulated after the famine of the 1940s by waves of emigration.

It has been observed that periods of extensive famine can lead to a reduction in the number of reported female children in some cultures. Demographers and historians have debated the causes of this trend and some believe that parents deliberately select male children, through the process of infanticide, as they are perceived as being more valuable to society. Others have suggested that biological processes may be at work.


In biological terms, a population beyond its regional carrying capacity causes famine. While the operative cause of famine is an imbalance of population with respect to food supply, the actual extent of famines depend on a combination of political, economic, and biological factors. Famines can be exacerbated by poor governance or inadequate logistics for food distribution. In some modern cases, it is political strife, poverty, and violence that disrupts the agricultural and food distribution processes.

The devastations brought on by famines are not accountable to one single event in a region. Rather, famines are brought on by an accumulation of events and policies that carry both “natural” and “artificial” characteristics. Floods, droughts, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other such disasters are part of the “natural” causes which are out of human control and oftentimes can lead to famines. On the other hand, wars, civil strife, government’s poor management of resources, and other similar events are viewed as the “artificial” causes which may also aid towards developing famine within a region. These events, both natural and artificial, do not generally work in isolation from one another. It is the combination of these causes which, over time, progressively erodes the capacity of countries and regions to deal with what could otherwise be "short-term shocks" to the land and its economy.

There is a particularly strong relationship between droughts, the subsequent demise of agriculture, and famines. However, droughts in many well-developed countries do not contribute to famines. On the other hand, a drought coupled with over populated areas, already existing inability to feed masses of people, and poor healthcare facilities easily tips the scales towards the mass devastations which result from famines in many developing countries. Poor healthcare and sanitation facilities brings about additional problems of diseases such as meningitis, malaria, and cholera. Under-nourished people are naturally more susceptible to these diseases and this only adds to the many factors which cause death and suffering in famine stricken regions.

While famines may appear to be similar across the globe, the policies from which they may attain relief differ immensely according to their governments, regions and the intensity and length of the famines. One “optimal solution” cannot be identified as the main means to cure the region that is affected.

Historical famines by region


Somalians sit in the sun as they wait for food provided during Operation Provide Relief, Somalia, in 1992.

Famines have been reported in various parts of Africa throughout history. In the mid-twenty-second century B.C.E., 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. In the 1680s, famine extended across the entire Sahel, and in 1738 half the population of Timbuktu died of famine (Milich 1997).

Historians of African famine have documented repeated famines in Ethiopia. Possibly the worst episode occurred in 1888 and succeeding years, as the epizootic rinderpest, 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 great famine that afflicted Ethiopia from 1888 to 1892 cost it roughly one-third of its population (Wolde-Georgis 1997).

In the first half of the twentieth century, apart from a few notable counter-examples such as the famine in Rwanda during World War II and the Malawi famine of 1949, most famines were localized and brief food shortages. The specter of famine recurred only 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.

Since then, African famines became more frequent, more widespread and more severe. 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, and swarms of desert locusts which can destroy whole crops and livestock diseases. The most serious famines have been caused by a combination of drought, misguided economic policies, and conflict. Political instability was a driving force in the famine of Karamoja, Uganda in 1980. This famine carries one of the worst mortality rates which has been recently recorded: 21 percent of the population of Karamoja died, including 60 percent of infants. 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.



Chinese scholars kept count of 1,828 rampages by the famine since 108 B.C.E. to 1911 in one province or another—an average of close to one famine per year (Mallory 1926). From 1333 to 1337 a terrible famine killed six million Chinese. The four famines of 1810, 1811, 1846, and 1849 are said to have killed not less than 45 million people (Ferreyra 2004). 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 nineteenth century famines (Will 1990). 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).

Chinese officials engaged in famine relief, nineteenth century engraving

When a stressed monarchy shifted from state management and direct shipments of grain to monetary charity in the mid-nineteenth century, the system broke down. Thus the 1867–1868 famine under the Tongzhi Restoration was successfully relieved but the Great North China Famine of 1877–1878 , caused by drought across northern China, was a vast 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 (Davis 2001).

The largest famine of the twentieth century, and almost certainly of all time, was the 1958–1961 Great Leap Forward famine. The immediate causes of this famine lay in Chairman Mao Zedong's ill-fated attempt to transform China from an agricultural nation. 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. Collectivization 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 (Chang and Wen 1997). 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.

The 1958–1961 famine is estimated to have caused excess mortality of about 30 million. It was only when the famine had wrought its worst that Mao reversed the agricultural collectivization policies, which were effectively dismantled in 1978. China has not experienced a major famine since 1961 (Woo-Cummings, 2002).


Owing to its almost entire dependence upon the monsoon rains, India is liable to crop failures, which upon occasion deepen into famine. There were 14 famines in India between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries (Bhatia, 1985). For example, during the 1022-1033 famines entire provinces were depopulated. Famine in Deccan killed at least 2 million people in 1702-1704. 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 nineteenth century.

Famines were a product of both natural causes such as uneven rainfall, and man-made causes brought on by British economic and administrative policies throughout the region. Since 1857, British administrative policies in India led to the seizure and conversion of local farmland to foreign-owned plantations, restrictions on internal trade, heavy taxation of Indian citizens to support unsuccessful British expeditions in Afghanistan, inflationary measures that increased the price of food and substantial exports of staple crops from India to Britain. Observations by the Famine Commission of 1880 supported the notion that food distribution was more to blame for famines than food scarcity. They observed that each province in British India, including Burma, had a surplus of food grains, and the annual surplus was 5.16 million tons. British citizens, such as William Digby, agitated for policy reforms and famine relief, but the governing British Viceroy of the time, Lord Lytton, opposed such changes with the belief that they would stimulate shirking by Indian workers.

Famines continued to persist in Colonial India until independence was gained in 1947. The last major famine to afflict India before its independence, was again mainly in the region of Bengal between 1943 to 1944. This killed three million to four million people. Since India’s independence, the country has never faced another major famine. The closest India has come to a famine was in 1966, in the region of Bihar. This situation was, however, alleviated before it reached the stages of a famine when the United States allocated 900,000 tons of grain in aid to the stricken area.

North Korea

Famine struck North Korea in the mid-1990s, set off by unprecedented floods. This autarkic urban, industrial society had achieved food self-sufficiency in prior decades through a massive industrialization of agriculture. However, the economic system relied on massive concessionary inputs of 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 1995–1996, expanding to full-fledged famine by 1996–1999. An estimated 600,000 died of starvation. North Korea did not resume its food self-sufficiency, continuing to rely on external food aid from China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States for more than a decade.


The most significant famine which occurred in Vietnam was the Vietnamese Famine of 1945. This was marked as an “unprecedented” famine in the nation’s history and led to the deaths of two million people. The famine was brought on by collaboration between the Japanese who had entered Vietnam in 1940 and its French colonialists. In an attempt to dominate Vietnam and combat the uprising Viet Minh revolutionaries, the French and Japanese controlled the food supply to the Vietnamese people. They forced farmers to destroy rice along with potatoes and bean crops and instead ordered the growth of peanuts and plants for Castor oil. The destruction of crops, coupled with the spread of pests in the fields, forced the famine to reach as far as north Vietnam causing its peak in early 1945.

Vietnam experienced famines on a comparatively smaller scale in the mid-1980s and the 1990s. These famines were caused by flooding and natural disasters.


From the Apocalypse in a Biblia Pauperum illuminated at Erfurt around the time of the Great Famine. Death "(Mors") sits astride a lion whose long tail ends in a ball of flame (Hell). Famine ("Fames") points to her hungry mouth.

Western Europe was an arena for catastrophes in the fourteenth century. It began with the Great Famine of 1315–1317 and continued on to the Black Death of 1347 to 1351. Prior to the Great Famine, Europe had faced many cases of food shortages in local regions which led to the deaths of some local inhabitants. Local food shortages, however, were vastly different in nature and impact compared to the famines that hit Western Europe in the fourteenth century.

By the early fourteenth century the population of Europe had steadily risen and consequently so had the need for greater food production. A plentiful harvest throughout Western Europe became a necessity in order to avoid large scale famines. Climatic changes in the beginning of the fourteenth century however, did not allow for optimal conditions in which crops could grow. Cooler weather became more prevalent with damper summers and earlier autumns. Shortfalls in harvests and crop failures occurred more often and soon agricultural resources could provide enough food for its people only under the best of conditions.

The spring of 1315 saw the first stages of the Great Famine. Wet conditions made for massive crop failures and rotting much of the seed grains before they could even germinate. Although many families began to deplete their food reserves and resorted to finding edible substitutes from forests, such as nuts, plants, and bark, it has been reported that “relatively few” died in this initial year. The impact was more so of wide spread malnutrition.

The following spring and summer of 1316 changed this outcome. Malnourished families grew weaker and were largely unable to till the lands to produce greater harvest. The cold and wet weather pattern continued and food reserves become virtually nonexistent. Death tolls were estimated to be so vast that all classes of society, from peasants to noblemen, were affected. No one was safe from the Great Famine. Draft animals which were used to till the lands were slaughtered and unspoiled seed grains where eaten. The elderly “volunteered” to starve themselves to death in order for any form of sustenance to go to the younger generations so that they might live to work the fields again. By the same token, infants and young children were abandoned. Although not confirmed, there were widespread rumors of cannibalism, and it has been suggested that Grimmsfairy tale of Hansel and Gretel reflects the abandoning of children and cannibalism which took place during the Great Famine of 1315-1322.

The famine continued for seven years until the summer of 1322, when the weather pattern returned to more favorable conditions. Recovery, however, was not immediate. There were problems with scarcity of seed grains and animals and people which survived to this point were too weak to work effectively. Although the official timeline for the Great Famine was from 1315 to 1322, the food supply only returned to its “normal” state in 1325 when the population in Western Europe began to increase again.

In the centuries which followed, Western Europe faced diseases and other events which led to natural occurrences of small scale food scarcities and famines. The 1590s saw the worst famines in centuries across all of Europe, except in certain areas, notably the Netherlands. 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 laborers 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 laborers were also at risk because their wages were insufficient to cover the cost of expensive 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 Netherlands was able to escape most of the damaging effects of the famine, though the 1590s were still difficult years there. Actual famine did not occur, for the Amsterdam grain trade [with the Baltic] guaranteed that there would always be something to eat in the Netherlands although hunger was prevalent. The Netherlands had the most commercialized agriculture in all of Europe at this time, growing many industrial crops, such as flax, hemp, and hops. Agriculture became increasingly specialized and efficient. As a result, productivity and wealth increased, allowing the Netherlands to maintain a steady food supply. By the 1620s, the economy was even more developed, so the country was able to avoid the hardships of that period of famine with even greater impunity.

The years around 1620 saw another period of famines 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 a third of the population.

Other areas of Europe have known famines much more recently. A number of countries saw famines in the nineteenth century, and famine still occurred in eastern Europe during the twentieth century.


In 1783 the volcano Laki in south-central Iceland erupted. The lava caused little direct damage, but ash and sulfur 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).


Famine Memorial in Dublin

The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849 began as a natural disaster but grew in severity due to social and political causes with the “actions and inactions” of the Whig government, headed by Lord John Russell. Divisions between Protestants and Catholics within British rule placed many restrictions on Irish Catholics. Under strictly enforced Penal Laws, Catholics, who were mostly Irish, were prevented from entering professions and from purchasing land. Along with it being illegal for Catholics to purchase land, it was also illegal for them to have an education, to speak or be taught in Gaelic, to hold office, vote, join the army, deal in trade, or practice their religion. Due to this form of discrimination, almost half the Irish population was forced to rent out small plots of land from “absentee British Protestant landlords.”

Depiction of victims of the Irish Potato Famine (1845–1849)

The peasants began to grow potatoes on their small plots of land as they could grow triple the amount of potatoes on the land compared to grain; an acre growing potato crops was able to feed a family for a year. It was estimated that about half of Ireland’s population was dependent on potatoes for survival and the crop provided approximately 60 percent of the nation’s food needs. In the summer of 1845, Ireland was struck with “potato blight” (Phytophthora infestans) and crops began to fail. Within six months there were large scale food shortages and by the following year, 1846, famine was a full grown epidemic throughout the land. Ironically in the initial year of the famine, although potato crops had failed, Ireland’s British lords were producing grain for export.

The Irish Potato Famine was the culmination of a social, biological, political, and economic catastrophe. In the colonial context of Ireland's domination by Britain, the root cause of the famine was perceived by many to be British policy. Certainly, the response of the British government was slow and inadequate. As diseases brought on by the famine worsened in the late 1840s, the British government began to implement changes to their laissez-faire economic policies and attempted to provide aid. By late 1847, soup kitchens and more grain began entering into Ireland, although they were poorly distributed and initially did very little to help.

The immediate after-effects of the famine continued until 1851. Much is unrecorded, but various estimates suggest that between five hundred thousand and more than 1 million people died in the years 1846 to 1849 as a result of hunger or disease. Also within a period of a decade, 1845-1855, it is estimated that close to two million people emigrated as a means to escape the devastations of the Irish Potato Famine.


The Finnish famine of 1866-1868 was the last famine in Finland and northern Sweden. In Finland the famine is known as "the great hunger years," or suuret nälkävuodet. About 15 percent of the entire population died; in the hardest-hit areas up to 20 percent. The total death toll was 270,000 in three years, about 150,000 in excess of normal mortality. The worst-hit areas were Satakunta, Tavastia, Ostrobothnia, and North Karelia.

The summer of 1866 was extremely rainy, and staple crops failed widely: potatoes and root vegetables rotted in the fields, and conditions for sowing grain in the autumn were unfavorable. When stored food ran out, thousands took to the roads to beg. The following winter was hard, and spring was late. In many places, lakes and rivers remained frozen until June. After a promisingly warm midsummer, freezing temperatures in early September ravaged crops; the harvest was about half the average. By the autumn of 1867, people were dying by the thousand. The weather returned to normal in 1868 and that year's harvest was somewhat better than average, but contagious diseases spread in the previous year killed many more.


The Great Famine of Estonia (1695–1697) was responsible for the death of 70,000 to 75,000 people, approximately 20 percent of the population of what was at that time Swedish Estonia.

This famine resulted from unfavorable weather conditions which began in 1694. The summer of 1695 was cold and rainy, followed by an early autumn frost that destroyed the summer crops. Cold conditions continued during 1696, with significant rainfall throughout the summer. Starvation began to hit the population, with the weaker and poorer people dying during the winter. It was not until 1698 that sufficient food was produced to support the Estonian population.

Russia and USSR

Droughts and famines in Imperial Russia are known to have happened every 10 to 13 years, with average droughts happening every five to seven years. Famines continued in the Soviet era, the most famous one being the Holodomor in Ukraine (1932-1933) which also involved a significant part of the population of Russia.

The first famine in the USSR happened in 1921-1923 and garnered wide international attention. It was due to the Southern type of drought, the most affected area being the Southeastern areas of European Russia (including Volga area, or Povolzhye, especially national republics of Idel-Ural, and Ukraine.

The second Soviet famine happened during the collectivization in the USSR. In 1932-1933 confiscations of grain and other food by the Soviet authorities caused a famine which affected more than 40 million people, especially in the south on the Don and Kuban areas and in Ukraine, where by various estimates from 5 to 10 million may have starved to death in the event known as Holodomor (Fawkes 2006). About 200,000 Kazakh nomads fled to China, Iran, Mongolia, and Afghanistan during the famine.

The last major famine in the USSR happened in 1947 as a cumulative effect of consequences of collectivization, war damage, the severe drought in 1946 in over 50 percent of the grain-productive zone of the country, and government social policy and mismanagement of grain reserves. This led to an estimated 1 to 1.5 million excess deaths as well as to secondary population losses due to reduced fertility (Ellman 2000).

Famine today

Today, famine strikes African countries the hardest, but with ongoing wars, internal struggles, and economic instability, famine continues to be a worldwide problem with millions of individuals suffering.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) with emergency status in July of 2005, as well as Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. In January 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned that 11 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia were in danger of starvation due to the combination of severe drought and military conflicts (FAO Newsroom, 2006)

In modern times, governments and non-governmental organizations that deliver famine relief have limited resources with which to address the multiple situations of food insecurity that are occurring simultaneously. Various methods of categorizing the gradations of food security have thus been used in order to most efficiently allocate food relief. One of the earliest were the 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.

Since 2004, 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.

Many believe that the Green Revolution is the answer to famine. The Green Revolution began in the twentieth century with hybrid strains of high-yielding crops. Not only does this contribute to a larger amount of the crop, but it can also stabilize production and these crops can be bred as to adapt to the conditions of the country. These high-yielding crops make it technically possible to feed the world and eliminate famine. Some criticize the process, however, stating that these new high-yielding crops require more chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can harm the environment.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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