A drastic, wide-reaching food shortage.
A drastic shortage; a dearth.
Severe hunger; starvation.
Archaic Extreme appetite.
A famine is a social and economic crisis that is commonly accompanied by widespread malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality.
Although many famines coincide with national or regional shortages of food, famine has also occurred amid plenty or on account of acts of economic or military policy that have deprived certain populations of sufficient food to ensure survival. Historically, famines have occurred because of drought, crop failure, pestilence, and man-made causes such as war or misguided economic policies. During the 20th century, an estimated 70 million people died from famines across the world, of who an estimated 30 million died during the famine of 1958–61 in China. The other most notable famines of the century included the 1942–1945 disaster in Bengal, famines in China in 1928 and 1942, and a sequence of man-made famines in the Soviet Union, including the Holodomor, Stalin’s famine inflicted on Ukraine in 1932–33. A few of the great famines of the late 20th century were: the disaster in Cambodia in the 1970s, the Ethiopian famine of 1983–85 and the North Korean famine of the 1990s.
Famine is induced by a human population beyond the regional carrying capacity to provide food resources. An alternate view of famine is a failure of the poor to command sufficient resources to acquire essential food (the “entitlement theory” of Amartya Sen), analyses of famine that focused on the political-economic processes driving the creation of famine, an understanding of the complex reasons for mortality in famines, an appreciation of the extent to which famine-vulnerable communities have well-developed strategies for coping with the threat of famine, and the role of warfare and terrorism in creating famine. Modern relief agencies categorize various gradations of famine according to a famine scale.
Many areas that suffered famines in the past have protected themselves through technological and social development. The first area in Europe to eliminate famine was the Netherlands, which saw its last peacetime famines in the early 17th century as it became a major economic power and established a complex political organization. Noting that many famines occur under dictatorship, colonial rule, or during war, Amartya Sen has posited that no functioning democracy has suffered a famine in modern times.
Characteristics of famine
Today, famine strikes Sub-Saharan African countries the hardest, but with exhaustion of food resources, wars, internal struggles, and economic failure, famine continues to be a worldwide problem with millions of individuals suffering. These famines cause widespread malnutrition and impoverishment; the modern African famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s had an immense death toll, although Asian famines of the 20th century have also produced extensive death tolls. Modern African famines are characterized by widespread destitution and malnutrition, with heightened mortality confined to young children. Relief technologies including immunization, improved public health infrastructure, general food rations and supplementary feeding for vulnerable children, has blunted the mortality impacts of famines, while leaving their economic causes and consequences unchanged. Humanitarian crises also arise from 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 and Asia. In July 2005, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network labeled Niger with emergency status, 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.  In 2006, the most serious humanitarian crisis in Africa is in Sudan’s region Darfur.
Some believe that the Green Revolution was an answer to famine in the 1970s and 1980s. The Green Revolution began in the 20th century with hybrid strains of high-yielding crops. Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by 250%. some criticize the process, stating that these new high-yielding crops require more chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can harm the environment. However, it was an option for developing nations suffering from famine. These high-yielding crops make it technically possible to feed much of the world population. They can be developed to provide enhanced nutrition, and a well-nourished, well-developed population would emerge. Some say that the problems of famine and ill-nourishment are the results of ethical dilemmas over using the technologies we have, as well as cultural and class differences. Furthermore, there are indications that regional food production has peaked in many world sectors, due to certain strategies associated with intensive agriculture such as groundwater over drafting and overuse of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.
Frances Moore LappÃ©, later co-founder of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) argued in Diet for a Small Planet (1971) that vegetarian diets can provide food for larger populations, with the same resources, compared to omnivorous diets.
Noting that modern famines are sometimes the outcome of 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. Amartya Sen states that the liberal institutions that exist in India, including competitive elections and a free press, have played a major role in preventing famine in that country since independence. Alex de Waal has developed this theory to focus on the “political contract” between rulers and people that ensure 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.
Causes of famine
The cause of famine a combination of political, economic, and biological factors. Because of food aid, improved storage and preservation food processing- it is a popular misconception that the only cause of famine is insufficient food supply, or in biological terms, a population beyond its regional carrying capacity. Famines can be exacerbated by poor governance or inadequate logistics for food distribution. In most modern cases, it is political strife, poverty, and violence that disrupt the agricultural and food distribution processes. Modern famines have often occurred in nations that, as a whole, were not initially suffering a shortage of food. One of the largest historical famines (proportional to the affected population) was the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1849, which began in 1845 and occurred as food was being shipped from Ireland to England because the English could afford to pay higher prices. The largest famine ever (in absolute terms) was the Chinese famine of 1958–61 that occurred as a result of the Great Leap Forward. In a similar manner, the 1973 famine in Ethiopia was concentrated in the Wollo region, although food was being shipped out of Wollo to the capital city of Addis Ababa where it could command higher prices. In contrast, at the same time that the citizens of the dictatorships of Ethiopia and Sudan had massive famines in the late-1970s and early-1980s, the democracies of Botswana and Zimbabwe avoided them, despite having worse drops in national food production. This was possible through the simple step of creating short-term employment for the worst-affected groups, thus ensuring a minimal amount of income to buy food, for the duration of the localized food disruption and was taken under criticism from opposition political parties and intense media coverage.
The failure of a harvest or the change in conditions, such as drought, can create a situation whereby large numbers of people live where the carrying capacity of the land has dropped radically. Famine is then associated primarily with subsistence agriculture, that is, where most farming is aimed at producing enough food energy to survive. 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.
Disasters, whether natural or man-made, have been associated with conditions of famine ever since humankind has been keeping written records. The Torah describes how “seven lean years” consumed the seven fat years, and “plagues of locusts” could eat all of the available food stuffs. War, in particular, was associated with famine, particularly in those times and places where warfare included attacks on land, by burning fields, or on those who tilled the soil.
As observed by the economist Amartya Sen, famine is sometimes a problem of food distribution and poverty. In certain cases, such as the Great Leap Forward, North Korea in the mid-1990s, or Zimbabwe in the early-2000s, famine can be caused as an unintentional result of government policy. Famine is sometimes used as a tool of repressive governments as a means to eliminate opponents, as in the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s. In other cases, such as Somalia, famine is a consequence of civil disorder as food distribution systems break down. Most cases are simply the result of the accidence of the Earth’s carrying capacity, with consideration given to ever-present economic inequities that have existed since early civilizations.
There are a number of ongoing famines caused by overpopulation, loss of arable land, war or political intervention. Beginning in the 20th century, nitrogen fertilizers, new pesticides, desert farming, and other agricultural technologies began to be used as weapons against famine. Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by 250%. These agricultural technologies temporarily increased crop yields, but there are signs as early as 1995 that not only are these technologies reaching their peak of assistance, but they may now be contributing to the decline of arable land (e.g. persistence of pesticides leading to soil contamination and decline of area available for farming. Developed nations have shared these technologies with developing nations with a famine problem, but there are ethical limits to pushing such technologies on lesser developed countries. This is often attributed to an association of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides with a lack of sustainability. In any case, these technological advances might not be influential in those famines which are the result of war. Similarly so, increased yield may not be helpful with certain distribution problems, especially those arising from political intervention.
David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, and Mario Giampietro, senior researcher at the National Research Institute on Food and Nutrition (INRAN), place in their study Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy the maximum U.S. population for a sustainable economy at 200 million. To achieve a sustainable economy and avert disaster, the United States must reduce its population by at least one-third, and world population will have to be reduced by two-thirds, says study.
The authors of this study believe that the mentioned agricultural crisis will only begin to impact us after 2020, and will not become critical until 2050. The oncoming peaking of global oil production (and subsequent decline of production), along with the peak of North American natural gas production will very likely precipitate this agricultural crisis much sooner than expected. Geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer claims that coming decades could see spiraling food prices without relief and massive starvation on a global level such as never experienced before.
Effects of famine
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 normal times male longevity advantage. Reasons for this may include greater female resilience under the pressure of malnutrition, and the fact that women are more skilled at gathering and processing wild foods and other fall-back famine foods. 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 China in 1958–61, Bengal in 1943, and Ethiopia in 1983–85 was all made up by a growing population over just a few years. Of greater long-term demographic impact is emigration: Ireland was chiefly depopulated after the 1840s famines by waves of emigration.
Levels of food insecurity
Main article: Famine scales
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 was 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 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 as food secure, food insecure, food crisis, famine, severe famine, and extreme famine. The number of deaths determines the magnitude designation, with fewer than 1000 fatalities defining a “minor famine” and a “catastrophic famine” resulting in over 1,000,000 deaths.
Historical famine, by region
Famine 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 the First Intermediate Period states, “All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger and people were eating their children.” Historians of African famine have documented repeated famines in Ethiopia and have explored the traditional mechanisms adopted by African societies to minimize risk and to provide food to the most vulnerable in times of crisis. In 1680s, famine extended across the entire Sahel, and in 1738 half the population of Timbuktu died of famine.
The colonial encounter saw Africa suffering numerous and widespread famines. 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. 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. Colonial “pacification” efforts often caused severe famine, as for example 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, also impoverished the peasantry in many areas, such as northern Nigeria, contributing to greater vulnerability to famine when severe drought struck in 1913.
However, for the middle part of the 20th century, agriculturalists, economists and geographers did not consider Africa to be famine prone (they were much more concerned about Asia). There were notable counter-examples, such as the famine in Rwanda during World War II and the Malawi famine of 1949, but most famines were localized and brief food shortages. 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 over the last two generations.
Since then, African famines have become 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. 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 Africa tenuous, including political instability, armed conflict and civil war, corruption and mismanagement in handling food supplies, and trade policies that harm African agriculture. An example of a famine created by human rights abuses is the 1998 Sudan famine. AIDS is also having long-term economic effects on agriculture by reducing the available workforce, and is creating new vulnerabilities to famine by overburdening poor households. On the other hand, in the modern history of Africa on quite a few occasions famines acted as a major source of acute political instability.
Recent examples include Ethiopia in 1973 and mid-1980s, 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 October 1984, television reports around the world carried footage of starving Ethiopians whose plight was centered on a feeding station near the town of Korem. BBC newsreader 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 other pop stars. The Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia raised further funds for the cause. An estimated 900,000 people die within one year as a result of the famine, but the tens of millions of pounds raised by Band Aid and Live Aid are widely believed to have saved the lives of around 6,000,000 more Ethiopians who were in danger of death.
More than 20 years on, famine and other forms of poverty are still affecting Ethiopia, but all concerned have insisted that the problems would have been far worse had it not been for Geldof and his fundraising causes.
Famine in Asia
Chinese officials engaged in famine relief, 19th C. engraving
Chinese scholars had kept count of 1,828 rampages by the famine since 108 B.C. to 1911 in one province or another — an average of close to one famine per year. China’s Qing Dynasty bureaucracy, which devoted extensive attention to minimizing famines, is credited with averting a series of famines following El NiÃ±o-Southern Oscillation-linked droughts and floods. These events are comparable, though somewhat smaller in scale, to the ecological trigger events of China’s vast 19th century famines. (Pierre-Etienne Will, Bureaucracy and Famine) Qing China carried out its relief efforts, which included vast shipments of food, a requirement that the rich open their storehouses to the poor, and price regulation, as part of a state guarantee of subsistence to the peasantry (known as ming-sheng).
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 1867–68 famine under the Tongzhi Restoration was successfully relieved but the Great North China Famine of 1877–78 , caused by drought across northern China, was a 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.(Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts)
Great Leap Forward
Main article: Great Leap Forward
The largest famine of the 20th century, and almost certainly of all time, was the 1958–61 Great Leap Forward famine in China. The immediate causes of this famine lay in Chairman Mao Zedong’s ill-fated attempt to transform China from an agricultural nation to an industrial power in one huge leap. In pursuit of this vision, 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 (see Chang, G, and Wen, G (1997), “Communal dining and the Chinese Famine 1958-1961” ). 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 1958–61 famine is estimated to have caused excess mortality of about 30 million, with a further 30 million cancelled or delayed births. 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).
Main article: Famine in India
There were 14 famines in India between 11th and 17th century (Bhatia, 1985). For example, during the 1022-1033 Great famines in India entire provinces were depopulated. Famine in Deccan killed at least 2 million people in 1702-1704. B.M. Bhatia believes that the earlier famines were localized, and it was only after 1860, during the British rule, that famine came to signify general shortage of food grains in the country. There were approximately 25 major famines spread through states such as Tamil Nadu in the south, and Bihar and Bengal in the east during the latter half of the 19th century, killing between 30 and 40 million Indians.
Romesh Dutt argued as early as 1900, and present-day scholars such as Amartya Sen agree, that the 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 unsuccessful British expeditions in Afghanistan (see The Second Anglo-Afghan War), inflationary measures that increased the price of food, and substantial exports of staple crops from India to Britain. (Dutt, 1900 and 1902; Srivastava, 1968; Sen, 1982; Bhatia, 1985.) Some British citizens, such as William Digby, agitated for policy reforms and famine relief, but Lord Lytton, the governing British viceroy in India, opposed such changes in the belief that they would stimulate shirking by Indian workers. The first, the Bengal famine of 1770, is estimated to have taken around 10 million lives — one-third of Bengal’s population at the time. The famines continued until independence in 1947, with the Bengal Famine of 1943–44— even though there were no crop failures —killing 3 million to 4 million Bengalis during World War II.
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 food grains, 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.
In 1966, there was a close call in Bihar, when the United States allocated 900,000 tons of grain to fight the famine.
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 1995–96, expanding to full-fledged famine by 1996–99. An estimated 600,000 died of starvation (other estimates range from 200,000 to 3.5 million). North Korea has not yet resumed its food self-sufficiency and relies on external food aid from China, Japan, South Korea and the United States. Recently, North Korea requested that food supplies no longer be delivered. (Woo-Cummings, 2002)
Various famines have occurred in Vietnam. Japanese occupation during World War II caused the Vietnamese Famine of 1945, which caused 2 million deaths. Following the unification of the country after the Vietnam War, Vietnam briefly experienced a food shortage in the 1980s, which prompted many people to flee the country.
Famine in Europe
The Great Famine of 1315–1317 (or to 1322) was the first crisis that would strike Europe in the 14th century, millions in northern Europe would die over an extended number of years, marking a clear end to the earlier period of growth and prosperity during the 11th and 12th centuries. Starting with bad weather in the spring of 1315, universal crop failures lasted until the summer of 1317, from which Europe did not fully recover until 1322. It was a period marked by extreme levels of criminal activity, disease and mass death, infanticide, and cannibalism. It had consequences for Church, State, European society and future calamities to follow in the 14th century.
The seventeenth century was a period of change for the food producers of Europe. For centuries they had lived primarily as subsistence farmers in a feudal system. They had obligations to their lords, who had suzerainty over the land tilled by their peasants. The lord of a fief would take a portion of the crops and livestock produced during the year. Peasants generally tried to minimize the amount of work they had to put into agricultural food production. Their lords rarely pressured them to increase their food output, except when the population started to increase, at which time the peasants were likely to increase the production themselves. More land would be added to cultivation until there was no more available and the peasants were forced to take up more labor-intensive methods of production. Nonetheless, they generally tried to work as little as possible, valuing their time to do other things, such as hunting, fishing or relaxing, as long as they had enough food to feed their families. It was not in their interest to produce more than they could eat or store themselves.
During the seventeenth century, continuing the trend of previous centuries, there was an increase in market-driven agriculture. Farmers, people who rented land in order to make a profit off of the product of the land, employing wage labor, became increasingly common, particularly in Western Europe. It was in their 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. Farmers paid their laborers in money, increasing the commercialization of rural society. This commercialization had a profound impact on the behavior of peasants. Farmers were interested in increasing labor input into their lands, not decreasing it as subsistence peasants were.
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 sixteenth century, but were spurred on more directly by the adverse conditions for food production that Europe found itself in the early seventeenth century — there was a general cooling trend in the Earth’s temperature starting at the beginning end of the sixteenth century.
The 1590s saw the worst famines in centuries across all of Europe, except in certain areas, notably the Netherlands. Famine had been relatively rare during the sixteenth century. The economy and population had grown steadily as subsistence populations tend to when there is an extended period of relative peace (most of the time). Subsistence peasant populations will almost always increase when possible since the peasants will try to spread the work to as many hands as possible. Although peasants in areas of high population density, such as northern Italy, had learned to increase the yields of their lands through techniques such as promiscuous culture, they were still quite vulnerable to famines, forcing them to work their land even more intensively.
Famine is 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 following years because of lack of seed stock or disruption of routine, or perhaps because of less-available labor. 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.
The great famine of the 1590s began the period of famine and decline in the seventeenth 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 laborers in the countryside was 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 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. 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. PDF (589 KiB)
The period of 1740–43 saw frigid winters and summer droughts which led to famine across Europe leading to a major spike in mortality.(cited in Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 281)
Other areas of Europe have known famines much more recently. France saw famines as recently as the nineteenth century. Famine still occurred in Eastern Europe during the 20th century.
Depiction of victims of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1849
The frequency of famine can vary with climate changes. For example, during the little ice age of the 15th century to the 18th century, European famines grew more frequent than they had been during previous centuries.
Because of the frequency of famine in many societies, it has long been a chief concern of governments and other authorities. In pre-industrial Europe, preventing famine, and ensuring timely food supplies, was one of the chief concerns of many governments, which employed various tools to alleviate famines, including price controls, purchasing stockpiles of food from other areas, rationing, and regulation of production. Most governments were concerned by famine because it could lead to revolt and other forms of social disruption.
In contrast, the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1849, was in no small part the result of policies of the Whig government of the United Kingdom under Lord Russell. Unlike in Britain, the land in Ireland was owned mostly by Anglican people of English descent, who did not identify culturally or ethnically with their peasants. The landlords were known as the Anglo-Irish. As the landowners felt no compunction to use their political clout to aid their tenants, the British government’s expedient response to the food crisis in Ireland was to leave the matter solely to market forces to decide. A strict free-market approach, aided by the British army guarding ports and food depots from the starving crowds, ensured food exports continued as before, and even increased during the famine period. The immediate effect was 1,000,000 dead and another 1,000,000 refugees fleeing to Britain and the United States. After the famine passed, infertility caused by famine, diseases and immigration spurred by the landlord-run economy being so thoroughly undermined, caused the population to enter into a 100-year decline. It was not until twenty years after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain that the population, then at half of what it had been before the famine, began to rise again. This period of Irish population decline after the famine was at a time when the European population doubled and the English population increased fourfold. This left the country severely under populated in relation to its contemporaries. The population decline continued in parts of the country worst affected by the famine until 2006 – 150 years after the famine and the British government’s laissez-faire economic policy. Before the Hunger, Ireland’s population was over half of England’s. Today it is an eighth.
Famine returned to the Netherlands during World War II, in what was known as the Hongerwinter, it was the last famine of Europe, approximately 30,000 people died of starvation. Some other areas of Europe also experienced famine at the same time.
The harvest failures were devastating for the northern Italian economy. The economy of the area had recovered well from the previous famines, but the famines from 1618 to 1621 coincided because of a period of war in the area. The economy did not recover fully for centuries. There were serious famines in the late-1640s and less severe ones in the 1670s throughout northern Italy.
From 1536 England began legislating Poor Laws which put a legal responsibility on the rich, at a parish level, to maintain the poor of that parish. English agriculture lagged behind the Netherlands, but by 1650 their agricultural industry was commercialized on a wide scale. The last peace-time famine in England was in 1623–24. There were still periods of hunger, as in the Netherlands, but there were no more famines as such. Rising population levels continued to put a strain on food security, despite potatoes becoming increasingly important in the diet of the poor. On balance, potatoes increased food security in England where they never replaced bread as the staple of the poor. Climate conditions were never likely to simultaneously be catastrophic for both the wheat and potato crops.
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]
Russia and the USSR
Main article: Famines in Russia and USSR
Droughts and famines in Imperial Russia are known to have happened every 10 to 13 years, with average droughts happening every 5 to 7 years. Famines continued in the Soviet era, the most famous one being the Holodomor in Ukraine (1932–1933). The last major famine in the USSR happened in 1947 due to the severe drought.
FAMINE (Lat. fames, hunger), extreme and general scarcity of food, causing distress and deaths from starvation among the population of a district or country. Famines have caused widespread suffering in all countries and ages. A list of the chief famines recorded by history is given farther on. The causes of famine are partly natural and partly artificial. Among the natural causes may be classed all failures of crops due to excess or defect of rainfall and other meteorological phenomena, or to the ravages of insects and vermin. Among the artificial causes may be classed war and economic errors in the production, transport and sale of food-stuffs.
The natural causes of famine are still mainly outside our control, though science enables agriculturists to combat them more successfully, and the improvement in means of transport allows a rich harvest in one land to supplement the defective Breaking up of totemism, crops in another. In tropical countries drought is the commonest cause of a failure in the harvest, and where great droughts are not uncommon – as in parts of India and Australia – the hydraulic engineer comes to the rescue by devising systems of water-storage and irrigation. It is less easy to provide against the evils of excessive rainfall and of frost, hail and the like. The experience of the French in Algiers shows that it is possible to stamp out a plague of locusts, such as is the greatest danger to the farmer in many parts of Argentina. But the ease with which food can nowadays be transported from one part of the world to another minimizes the danger of famine from natural causes, as we can hardly conceive that the whole food-producing area of the world should be thus affected at once.
The artificial causes of famine have mostly ceased to be operative on any large scale. Chief among them is war, which may cause a shortage of food – supplies, either by its direct ravages or by depleting the supply of agricultural labor. But only local famines are likely to arise from this cause. Legislative interference with agricultural operations or with the distribution of food-supplies, currency restrictions and failure of transport, which have all caused famines in the past, are unlikely thus to operate again; nor is it probable that the modern speculators who attempt to make “corners” in wheat could produce the evil effects contemplated in the old statutes against forestallers and retractors.
Such local famines as may occur in the 10th century will probably be attributable to natural causes. It is impossible to regulate the rainfall of any district, or wholly to supply its failure by any system of water-storage. Irrigation is better able to bring fertility to a naturally arid district than to avert the failure of crops in one which is naturally fertile. The true palliative of famine is to be found in the improvement of methods of transport, which make it possible rapidly to convey food from one district to another. But the efficiency of this preventive stops short at the point of saving human life. It cannot prevent a rise in prices, with the consequent suffering among the poor. Still, every year makes it less likely that the world will see a renewal of the great famines of the past, and it is only the countries where civilization is still backward that are in much danger of even a local famine.
5th century BC
• 440 BC famine in Ancient Rome..
5th century AD
• Famine in Western Europe associated with the Fall of Rome and its sack by Alaric I. See Medieval demography.
7th century AD
• 639 AD – Famine in Arabia during the Caliphate of `Umar ibn Al-Khattab
• 1315-1317 Great Famine in Europe
• 1333-1337 famine in China
• 1567-1570 Famine in Harar in Ethiopia, combined with plague. Nur ibn Mujahid, Emir of Harar, died.
• 1590s famines in Europe
• 1618-1648 famines in Europe caused by Thirty Years’ War
• 1630-1631 famine in India (Note: There was a corresponding famine in northwestern China, eventually causing the Ming dynasty to collapse in 1644.)
• 1693-1694 famine in France which killed 2 million people
• 1696-1697 famine in Finland
• 1740-1741 famine in Ireland
• 1770 famine in Bengal
• 1783 famine in Iceland caused by volcanic eruption
• 1816-1817 Famine in Europe (Year Without a Summer)
• 1830s Tenpo famine (Japan)
• 1845-1849 Irish Potato Famine
• 1846-1857 Highland Potato Famine in Scotland
• 1866 famine in India (Bengal and Orissa)
• 1866-1868 Famine in Finland
• 1879 Famine in Ireland
• 1876-1879 Famine in India, China, Brazil, Northern Africa (and other countries)
• 1888-1892 Ethiopian Great famine. Conditions worsen with cholera outbreaks (1889-92), a typhus epidemic, and a major smallpox epidemic (1889-90).
• 1896-1897 Famine in northern China
• 1896-1902 Famine in India
• 1914-1918 Mount Lebanon famine during World War I
• 1921 famine in Russia
• 1921-1922 Famine in Tatarstan
• 1928-1929 famine in northern China
• 1933 famine in Ukraine (Holodomor), other parts of Russia, Kazakhstan and Caucasus area
• 1941-1942 famine in Greece caused by Nazi occupation
• 1943 famine in Bengal
• 1944 famine in the Netherlands during World War II
• 1945 famine in Vietnam
• 1959-1961 Great Leap Forward / Three Years of Natural Disasters (China); this famine is considered the greatest famine in history. It killed more people than all the victims counted in List of massacres. Estimates are in the tens of millions.
• 1968-1972 Sahel drought
• 1973 famine in Ethiopia; failure of the government to handle this crisis led to fall of Haile Selassie and to Derg rule.
• 1974 famine in Bangladesh
• 1984 – 1985 famine in Ethiopia
• 1997 North Korean famine  
• famine in Sudan caused by war and drought
• famine in Zimbabwe
Droughts which have not yet become famines
• 2003- famine in Sudan/Darfur (Darfur conflict)
• 2005 Malawi food crisis
• 2005-06 Niger food crisis
2006 Horn of Africa food crisis