A famine is a widespread scarcity of food, caused by several
factors including war, inflation, crop failure, population imbalance,
or government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or
followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased
mortality. Every inhabited continent in the world has experienced a
period of famine throughout history. In the 19th and 20th century, it
was generally Southeast and South Asia, as well as Eastern and Central
Europe that suffered the most deaths from famine. The numbers dying
from famine began to fall sharply from the 1970s.
Some countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, continue to have
extreme cases of famine. Since 2010,
Africa has been the most affected
continent in the world. As of 2017, the
United Nations has warned some
20 million are at risk in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.
Agricultural conditions have been fluctuating more and more due to
variations in weather, and the distribution of food has been affected
by conflict. Most programmes now direct their aid towards Africa.
2.1 Decline of famine
2.2 Attempts at famine alleviation
2.3 20th century
3 21st century
4 Regional history
4.2 The role of African Unity organization
4.3 Far East
4.5 Middle East
4.7 Latin America
5 Risk of future famine
Climate and population pressure
6.2 State-sponsored famines
7.3 Levels of food insecurity
8 Society and culture
9 See also
12 Sources and further reading
13 External links
According to the
United Nations humanitarian criteria, even if there
are food shortages with large numbers of people lacking nutrition, a
famine is declared only when certain measures of mortality,
malnutrition and hunger are met. The criteria are:
At least 20% of households in an area face extreme food shortages with
a limited ability to cope
The prevalence of acute malnutrition in children exceeds 30%
The death rate exceeds two persons per 10,000 persons per day
The declaration of a famine carries no binding obligations on the UN
or member states, but serves to focus global attention on the
Further information: List of famines
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
Famine was first eliminated in
the 17th century, due to the commercialization of agriculture and the
implementation of improved techniques to increase crop yields.
Decline of famine
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
By 1650, English agriculture had also become 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. By the end of the 17th
century, English agriculture was the most productive in Europe. In
England and the Netherlands, the population stabilized between
1650 and 1750, the same time period in which the sweeping changes to
Famine still occurred in other parts of Europe,
however. In East Europe, famines occurred as late as the twentieth
Attempts at famine alleviation
Skibbereen, Ireland, during the Great Famine, 1847 illustration by
James Mahony for the Illustrated
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 effect
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. 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. The maize corn was then re-sold for a penny a
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. In March, Peel set
up a programme of public works in Ireland.
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.
A systematic attempt at creating the necessary regulatory framework
for dealing with famine was developed by the
British Raj in the 1880s.
In order to comprehensively address the issue of famine, the British
created an Indian
Famine commission to recommend steps that the
government would be required to take in the event of a
Famine Commission issued a series of
government guidelines and regulations on how to respond to famines and
food shortages called the
Famine Code. The famine code was also one of
the first attempts to scientifically predict famine in order to
mitigate its effects. These were finally passed into law in 1883 under
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. 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.
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. The other most notable famines
of the century included the
Bengal famine of 1943, famines in
1928 and 1942, and a sequence of famines in
Russia and elsewhere 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
North Korean famine of the 1990s and the Ethiopian famine
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.
Michael Buerk gave moving commentary of the tragedy on
23 October 1984, which he described as a "biblical famine". This
prompted the Band Aid single, which was organized by
Bob Geldof and
featured more than 20 pop stars. The
Live Aid concerts in
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
believed to have saved the lives of some Ethiopians who were in danger
of dying.
Until 2017, worldwide deaths from famine had been falling
World Peace Foundation
World Peace Foundation reported that from the 1870s
to the 1970s, great famines killed an average of 928,000 people a
year. Since 1980, annual deaths had dropped to an average of
75,000, less than 10% of what they had been until the 1970s. That
reduction was achieved despite the approximately 150,000 lives lost in
Somalia famine. Yet in 2017, the UN officially declared
famine had returned to Africa, with about 20 million people at risk of
death from starvation in Nigeria, in South Sudan, in Yemen, and in
See also: Category:Famines in Africa.
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
First Intermediate Period
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. In Egypt, between 1687 and 1731, there
were six famines. The famine that afflicted
Egypt in 1784 cost it
roughly one-sixth of its population. The
famine and plague in the late 18th century and early 19th
century. There was famine in
Tripoli in 1784, and in
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."
The first documentation of weather in West-Central
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.
A 1906 Punch cartoon depicting
King Leopold II
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. This period resulted in
the death of up to 10 million Congolese from brutality, disease and
famine. 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
infected cattle, spread southwards reaching ultimately as far as South
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
1888 to 1892 cost it roughly one-third of its population. 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 to 1917.
They were recorded by the Himba through a method of oral tradition.
From 1910 to 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 to
1916 droughts brought katur' ombanda or kari' ombanda which means "the
time of eating clothing".
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 especially famine prone.
From 1870 to 2010, 87 per cent of deaths from famine occurred in Asia
and Eastern Europe, with only 9.2 per cent in Africa. 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.
From 1967 to 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
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
Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s. Pictures of
the famine caused by Nigerian blockade garnered sympathy for the
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. 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
In October 1984, television reports describing the Ethiopian famine as
"biblical", prompted the
Live Aid concerts in
London and Philadelphia,
which raised large sums to alleviate the suffering. A primary cause of
the famine (one of the largest seen in the country) is that Ethiopia
(and the surrounding Horn) was still recovering from the droughts
which occurred in the mid-late 1970s. Compounding this problem was the
intermittent fighting due to civil war, the government's lack of
organization in providing relief, and hoarding of supplies to control
the population. Ultimately, over 1 million Ethiopians died and over 22
million people suffered due to the prolonged drought, which lasted
roughly 2 years.
Somalia became a war zone with no effective government,
police, or basic services after the collapse of the dictatorship led
Siad Barre and the split of power between warlords. This coincided
with a massive drought, causing over 300,000 Somalis to perish.
Laure Souley holds her three-year-old daughter and an infant son at a
MSF aide center during the 2005 famine, Maradi Niger
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.
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. Desertification
is increasingly problematic: the
Sahara reportedly spreads up to 48
kilometres (30 mi) per year. 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.
Numerous factors make the food security situation in
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
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
Africa on quite a few occasions famines acted as a major
source of acute political instability. 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,
United Nations University (UNU)'s Ghana-based Institute
for Natural Resources in Africa.
Famine-affected areas in the western
Sahel belt during the 2012
Recent famines in
Africa include the 2005–06
Niger food crisis, the
Sahel famine and the 2011 East
Africa drought, where two
consecutive missed rainy seasons precipitated the worst drought in
Africa in 60 years. An estimated 50,000 to 150,000 people
are reported to have died during the period. In 2012, the
Sahel drought put more than 10 million people in the western
risk of famine (according to a Methodist
Relief & Development Fund
(MRDF) aid expert), due to a month-long heat wave.
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.
These famines cause widespread malnutrition and impoverishment. The
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
Against a backdrop of conventional interventions through the state or
markets, alternative initiatives have been pioneered to address the
problem of food security. One pan-African example is the Great Green
Wall. Another 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,
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.
The role of African Unity organization
The organization of African unity and its role in the African crisis
has been interested in the political aspects of the continent,
especially the liberation of the occupied parts of it and the
elimination of racism. The organization has succeeded in this area but
the economic field and development has not succeeded in these fields.
African leaders have agreed to waive the role of their organization in
the development to the
United Nations through the Economic Commission
See also: Northern Chinese
Famine of 1876–1879, Chinese famine of
1928–1930, and Chinese famine of 1942–43
Chinese officials engaged in famine relief, 19th-century engraving
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. 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.
Japan experienced more than 130 famines between 1603 and 1868.
The period from 1850 to 1873 saw, as a result of the Taiping
Rebellion, drought, and famine, the population of
China drop by over
30 million people. 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. 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).
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
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.
Great Leap Forward
The largest famine of the 20th century, and almost certainly of all
time, was the 1958–61
Great Leap Forward
Great Leap Forward famine in China. The
immediate causes of this famine lay in Mao Zedong's ill-fated attempt
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. 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.
The exact number of famine deaths during 1958–61 is difficult to
determine, and estimates range from 18 to at least 42 million
people, with a further 30 million cancelled or delayed births. It
was only when the famine had wrought its worst that Mao reversed
agricultural collectivisation policies, which were effectively
dismantled in 1978.
China has not experienced a famine of the
proportions of the
Great Leap Forward
Great Leap Forward since 1961.
Khmer Rouge murder victims at Choeung Ek
In 1975, the
Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia. The new government
was led by Pol Pot, who desired to turn
Cambodia into a communist,
agrarian utopia. His regime emptied the cities, abolished currency and
private property, and forced Cambodia's population into slavery on
communal farms. In less than four years, the
Khmer Rouge had executed
nearly 1.4 million people, mostly those believed to be a threat to the
Due to the failure of the Khmer Rouge's agrarian reform policies,
Cambodia experienced widespread famine. As many as one million more
died from starvation, disease, and exhaustion resulting from these
policies. In 1979
Cambodia and removed the
Khmer Rouge from power. By that time about one quarter of Cambodia's
population had been killed.
North Korean famine in the 1990s
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.
Estimates based on the North Korean census suggest that 240,000 to
420,000 people died as a result of the famine and that there were
600,000 to 850,000 unnatural deaths in
North Korea from 1993 to
North Korea has not yet regained food self-sufficiency and
relies on external food aid from China, Japan, South Korea,
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).
According to the UN’s
Agriculture Organisation (FAO), North
Korea is facing a serious cereal shortfall in 2017 after the
country’s crop harvest was diminished as a result of severe
drought. The FAO estimated that early-season production fell by
over 30 percent compared to agricultural output from the previous
year, leading to the country's worst famine since 2001.
Various famines have occurred in Vietnam. Japanese occupation during
War II caused the Vietnamese
Famine of 1945, which caused 2
million deaths, or 10% of the population then. Following the
unification of the country after the
a food shortage in the 1980s, which prompted many people to flee the
Famine in India
See also: Timeline of major famines in
India during British rule
Owing to its almost entire dependence upon the monsoon rains,
vulnerable to crop failures, which upon occasion deepen into
famine. There were 14 famines in
India between the 11th and 17th
centuries (Bhatia, 1985). For example, during the 1022–1033 Great
India entire provinces were depopulated.
Famine in Deccan
killed at least two 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
Bengal in the east during the latter
half of the 19th century.
Victims of the
Great Famine of 1876–78
Great Famine of 1876–78 in
India during British rule,
pictured in 1877.
Romesh Chunder Dutt
Romesh Chunder Dutt argued as early as 1900, and present-day scholars
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
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
Famine of 1876–78, in which 6.1 million to 10.3 million people
died and the Indian famine of 1899–1900, in which 1.25 to 10
million people died. The famines were ended by the 20th century
with the exception of the
Bengal famine of 1943
Bengal famine of 1943 killing an estimated
2.1 million Bengalis during World
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.
Population growth worsened the plight of the peasantry. As a result of
peace and improved sanitation and health, the Indian population rose
from perhaps 100 million in 1700 to 300 million by 1920. While
encouraging agricultural productivity, the British also provided
economic incentives to have more children to help in the fields.
Although a similar population increase occurred in
Europe at the same
time, the growing numbers could be absorbed by industrialization or
emigration to the Americas and Australia.
India enjoyed neither an
industrial revolution nor an increase in food growing. Moreover,
Indian landlords had a stake in the cash crop system and discouraged
innovation. As a result, population numbers far outstripped the amount
of available food and land, creating dire poverty and widespread
— -Craig A. Lockard, Societies, Networks, and Transitions
The Maharashtra drought in which there were zero deaths and one which
is known for the successful employment of famine prevention policies,
unlike during British rule.
A starving woman and child during the Assyrian Genocide. Ottoman
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).
In the early 20th century an Ottoman blockade of food being exported
Lebanon caused a famine which killed up to 450,000 Lebanese (about
one-third of the population). The famine killed more people than the
Lebanese Civil War. The blockade was caused by uprisings in the Syrian
region of the Empire including one which occurred in the 1860s which
lead to the massacre of thousands of Lebanese and Syrian by Ottoman
Turks and local
Medieval demography and Crisis of the Late Middle
Great Famine of 1315–1317
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. An unusually cold and wet spring of 1315 led to
widespread crop failures, which lasted until at least the summer of
1317; some regions in
Europe did not fully recover until 1322. Most
nobles, cities, and states were slow to respond to the crisis and when
they realized its severity, they had little success in securing food
for their people. In 1315, in Norfolk England, the price of grain
soared from 5 shillings/quarter to 20 shillings/quarter. 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, and 75 or more
in medieval France. More than 10% of England's population, or at
least 500,000 people, may have died during the famine of
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.
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.
An engraving from Goya's Disasters of War, showing starving women,
doubtless inspired by the terrible famine that struck
During the 15th century to the 18th century, famines in
more frequent due to the Little Ice Age. The colder climate resulted
in harvest failures and shortfalls that led to a rise in conspiracy
theories concerning the causes behind these famines, such as the Pacte
Famine in France.
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).
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
The great famine of the 1590s began a 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.
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 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.
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.
Over two million people died in two famines in
France between 1693 and
1710. Both famines were made worse by ongoing wars.
Illustration of starvation in northern Sweden, Finnish famine of
As late as the 1690s,
Scotland experienced famine which reduced the
population of parts of
Scotland by at least 15%.
Famine of 1695–1697 may have killed a third of the Finnish
population. and roughly 10% of Norway's population. Death
rates rose in Scandinavia between 1740 and 1800 as the result of a
series of crop failures. For instance, the Finnish famine of
1866–1868 killed 15% of the population.
The period of 1740–43 saw frigid winters and summer droughts, which
led to famine across
Europe and a major spike in mortality. The
winter 1740–41 was unusually cold, possibly because of volcanic
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
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.
There were sixteen good harvests and 111 famine years in northern
Italy from 1451 to 1767. 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..."
According to Bryson (1974), there were thirty-seven famine years in
Iceland between 1500 and 1804. In 1783 the volcano Laki in
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, 152–53]
Depiction of victims of the Great
Famine in Ireland, 1845–1849
Other areas of
Europe have known famines much more recently. France
saw famines as recently as the 19th century. The Great
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.
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
Russia experienced eleven major famines between 1845 and 1922,
one of the worst being the famine of 1891–92. The Russian famine
of 1921–22 killed an estimated 5 million.
Victims of the
Russian famine of 1921–22
Russian famine of 1921–22 during the Russian Civil
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
Soviet famine of 1932–1933
Soviet famine of 1932–1933 is nowadays reckoned to
have cost an estimated 6 million lives. The last major famine in
USSR happened in 1947 due to the severe drought and the
mismanagement of grain reserves by the Soviet government.
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
The 872 days of the
Siege of Leningrad
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.
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
Malnourished child during Brazil's 1877–78
Grande Seca (Great
The pre-Columbian Americans often dealt with severe food shortages and
famines. 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.
Grande Seca (Great Drought), the worst in Brazil's
history, caused approximately half a million deaths. The one
from 1915 was devastating too.
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.
There are other documented episodes of famine in various islands of
Polynesia, such as occurred in
Kau, Hawaii in 1868.
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
Risk of future famine
The factual accuracy of parts of this article (those related to
article) may be compromised due to out-of-date information. Please
update this article to reflect recent events or newly available
information. (December 2010)
The Guardian reports that in 2007 approximately 40% of the world's
agricultural land is seriously degraded. 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. As of late
2007, increased farming for use in biofuels, along with world oil
prices at nearly $100 a barrel, 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. In 2007
Food riots have taken place in many
countries across the world. An epidemic of stem rust,
which is destructive to wheat and is caused by race Ug99, has in 2007
Africa and into Asia.
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%. Developed nations have shared these
technologies with developing nations with a famine problem. 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, salt accumulation due to
Lake Chad in a 2001 satellite image, with the actual lake in blue. The
lake has shrunk by 95% since the 1960s.
In 1994, David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at
Cornell University, and Mario Giampietro, senior researcher at the
National Research Institute on
Nutrition (INRAN), estimated
U.S. population for a sustainable economy at 200
According to geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer, coming decades could see
rising food prices without relief and massive starvation on a global
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. 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 while overexploiting 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.
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.
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. 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,
Salween and Yellow – could disappear by 2350 as
temperatures rise and human demand rises.[note 1]
Approximately 2.4 billion people live in the drainage basin of the
Himalayan rivers. India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan,
Myanmar could experience floods followed by
severe droughts in coming decades. In
India alone, the Ganges
provides water for drinking and farming for more than 500 million
Evan Fraser, a geographer at the
University of Guelph
University of Guelph in Ontario,
Canada, explores the ways in which climate change may affect future
famines. To do this, he draws on a range of historic cases where
relatively small environmental problems triggered famines as a way of
creating theoretical links between climate and famine in the future.
Drawing on situations as diverse as the Great Irish Potato
Famine, a series of weather induced famines in
Asia during the
late 19th century, and famines in
Ethiopia during the 1980s, he
concludes there are three "lines of defense" that protect a
community's food security from environmental change. The first line of
defense is the agro-ecosystem on which food is produced: diverse
ecosystems with well managed soils high in organic matter tend to be
more resilient. The second line of defense is the wealth and skills of
individual households: If those households affected by bad weather
such as 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. 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
See also: Theories of famines
A victim of starvation in besieged Leningrad suffering from dystrophia
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:
Blix – Widespread food shortage leading to significant rise in
regional death rates.
Brown and Eckholm – Sudden, sharp reduction in food supply
resulting in widespread hunger.
Scrimshaw – Sudden collapse in level of food consumption of
large numbers of people.
Ravallion – Unusually high mortality with unusually severe
threat to food intake of some segments of a population.
Cuny – A set of conditions that occurs when large numbers of
people in a region cannot obtain sufficient food, resulting in
widespread, acute malnutrition.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
Some elements make a particular region more vulnerable to famine.
These include poverty, population growth, an inappropriate social
infrastructure, a suppressive political regime, and a weak or
According to a FEWSNET report, "Famines are not natural phenomena,
they are catastrophic political failures."
Climate and population pressure
A child suffering extreme starvation in India, 1972
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
Europe during the Middle Ages, including 95 in Britain and 75 in
France. In France, the Hundred Years' War, crop failures and
epidemics reduced the population by two-thirds.
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
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.
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.
In certain cases, such as the
Great Leap Forward
Great Leap Forward in
produced the largest famine in absolute numbers),
North Korea in the
Zimbabwe in the early-2000s, famine can occur because of
The government's forced collectivization of agriculture was one of the
main causes of the Soviet famine of 1932–1933.
In 1932, under the rule of the USSR,
Ukraine experienced one of its
largest famines when between 2.4 and 7.5 million peasants died as a
result of a state sponsored famine. It was termed the Holodomor,
suggesting that it was a deliberate campaign of repression designed to
eliminate resistance to collectivization. Forced grain quotas imposed
upon the rural peasants and a brutal reign of terror contributed to
the widespread famine. The Soviet government continued to deny the
problem and it did not provide aid to the victims nor did it accept
In 1958 in China, Mao Zedong's Communist Government launched the Great
Leap Forward campaign, aimed at rapidly industrializing the
country. The government forcibly took control of agriculture.
Barely enough grain was left for the peasants, and starvation occurred
in many rural areas. Exportation of grain continued despite the famine
and the government attempted to conceal it. 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 and 45 million people perished in this famine,
making it one of the deadliest famines to date.
Malawi ended its famine by subsidizing farmers despite the strictures
imposed by the World Bank. During the 1973 Wollo
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 suffering a severe drop in national food production. In
Somalia, famine occurred because of a failed state.
The famine in Yemen was a direct result of the Saudi Arabian-led
intervention in Yemen and blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and its
allies, including the United States.
Famines since 1850 by political regime
Amartya Sen (1999) “there has never been a famine in a
functioning multiparty democracy”. Hasell and Roser have
demonstrated that while there have been a few minor exceptions,
famines rarely occur in democratic system but are strongly correlated
with autocratic and colonial systems.
A starving child during the 1869 famine in Algeria.
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.
Despite repeated stated intentions by the world's leaders to end
hunger and famine, famine remains a chronic threat in much of Africa,
Eastern Europe, the Southeast, South Asia, and the Middle East. In
July 2005, the
Famine Early Warning Systems Network
Famine Early Warning Systems Network labelled Niger
with emergency status, as well as Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia
and Zimbabwe. In January 2006, the
Food and Agriculture
Organization warned that 11 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti
Ethiopia were in danger of starvation due to the combination of
severe drought and military conflicts. In 2006, the most serious
humanitarian crisis in
Africa was in Sudan's region Darfur.
Frances Moore Lappé, later co-founder of the Institute for
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.
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 2] 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
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.
A woman, a man and a child, all three dead from starvation. Russia,
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.
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
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.
Main article: food security
Long term measures to improve food security, include investment in
modern agriculture techniques, such as fertilizers and
irrigation, but can also include strategic national food storage.
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.
Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, is often credited with
saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.
The effort to bring modern agricultural techniques found in the
Western world, such as nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides, to the
Indian Sub-continent, 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.
Supporting farmers in areas of food insecurity, through such measures
as free or subsidized fertilizers and seeds, increases food harvest
and reduces food prices.
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
Europe extensively subsidized their own farmers.
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. 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. The aid
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.
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.
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." US Law[which?], which requires buying food
at home rather than where the hungry live, is inefficient because
approximately half of what is spent goes for transport. 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."
Deficient micronutrients can be provided through fortifying
foods. 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
A Somali boy receiving treatment for malnutrition at a health facility
in Hilaweyn during the drought of 2011.
WHO and other sources recommend that malnourished children—and
adults who also have diarrhea—drink rehydration solution, and
continue to eat, in addition to antibiotics, and zinc
supplements. There is a special oral rehydration
solution called ReSoMal which has less sodium and more potassium than
standard solution. However, if the diarrhea is severe, the standard
solution is preferable as the person needs the extra sodium.
Obviously, this is a judgment call best made by a physician, and using
either solution is better than doing nothing. Zinc supplements often
can help reduce the duration and severity of diarrhea, and
can also be helpful. The World Health Organization underlines the
importance of a person with diarrhea continuing to eat, with a 2005
publication for physicians stating: "
Food should never be withheld and
the child's usual foods should not be diluted. Breastfeeding should
always be continued."
Ethiopia has been pioneering a program that has now become part of the
World Bank's prescribed recipe for coping with a food crisis and had
been seen by aid organizations as a model of how to best help hungry
nations. Through the country's main food assistance program, the
Productive Safety Net Program,
Ethiopia has been giving rural
residents who are chronically short of food, a chance to work for food
or cash. Foreign aid organizations like the World
Food Program were
then able to buy food locally from surplus areas to distribute in
areas with a shortage of food.
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%. Some[who?] 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
Levels of food insecurity
In modern times, local and political 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
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.
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
Society and culture
Famine personified as an allegory is found in some cultures, e.g. one
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Christian tradition, the
fear gorta of Irish folklore, or the
Wendigo of Algonquian tradition.
Sustainable development portal
2007–08 world food price crisis
Agriculture and population limits
Atmit (a porridge used to fight famine)
Climate change and agriculture
Famine Early Warning Systems Network
Global Hunger Index
List of famines
Global catastrophic risk
The vulture and the little girl: Controversial picture (by Kevin
Carter) of a vulture lurking a famine-stricken
World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates
World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (monthly report)
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Davis, Mike, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the
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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
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its Contribution to
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In Depth: Africa's
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Food Security: A Review of Literature from
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The Real Causes of Famine – Time Magazine
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