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A famine is a phenomenon in which a large percentage of the population of a region or country are so undernourished that death by starvation becomes increasingly common. In spite of the much greater technological and economic resources of the modern world, famine still strikes many parts of the world, mostly in the developing nations. Famine is associated with naturally-occurring crop failure and pestilence and artificially with war and genocide. In the past few decades, a more nuanced view focused on the economic and political circumstances leading to modern famine has emerged. 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. A prominent economist on the subject, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, has noted that no functioning democracy has ever suffered a famine.

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Characteristics of famine
Historical famine, by region

Characteristics of famine - Contents

Famine today
Today, famine strikes African countries the hardest, but with ongoing wars, internal struggles, and economic instability, famine continues to be a worldwide problem with millions of individuals suffering. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network labeled Niger with emergency status in July of 2005, as well as Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe. In January 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned that 11 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia were in danger of starvation due to the combination of severe drought and military conflicts. [1]Many believe that the Green Revolution is still the answer to famine. The Green Revolution began in the 20th century with hybrid strains of high-yielding crops. Not only does this contribute to a larger amount of the crop, but it can also stabilize production. Some criticize the process, stating that these new high-yielding crops require more chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can harm the environment. However, it may be an option for developing nations suffering from famine, and these crops can be bred as to adapt to the conditions of the country. These high-yielding crops make it technically possible to feed the world and eliminate famine. They can be developed to provide optimal 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.An interesting view is that vegetarian diets can provide food for larger populations, with the same resources, compared to carnivorous diets. A minority viewpoint is that such diets can help prevent famines.

Causes of famine
Modern famines have often occurred in nations that, as a whole, were not suffering a shortage of food. The largest famine ever (proportional to the affected population) was the Irish Potato Famine, which began in 1845 and occurred as food was being shipped from Ireland to England because the English could afford to pay higher prices. 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.Because herding and agriculture allow for greater population, both in numbers and in density, 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.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.Famine has a very strong impact on demographics. For example, it has been observed that periods of extensive famine can lead to a reduction in the number of reported female children in some cultures. Demographers and historians debate the causes of this trend. Some believe that parents deliberately select male children (by killing or selling female children, see infanticide), who were perceived as more valuable. Others believe that biological processes may be at work.As observed by the economist Amartya Sen, famine is usually a problem of food distribution and poverty, rather than an absolute lack of food. In many 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.There are a number of ongoing famines caused by war or deliberate political intervention.Today, nitrogen fertilizers, new natural pesticides, desert farming, and other new agricultural technologies are being used as weapons against famine. They increase crop yields by two, three, or more times. Developed nations share these technologies with developing nations with a famine problem. However, since modern famine is usually the result of war and distribution problems, it is questionable how much relevance or impact new agricultural technologies would have on this problem.

Levels of food insecurity
In modern times, governments and non-governmental organizations that deliver famine relief have limited resources with which to address the multiple situations of food insecurity that are occurring simultaneously. Various methods of categorizing the gradations of food security have thus been used in order to most efficiently allocate food relief. One of the earliest were the Indian Famine Codes devised by the British in the 1880s. The Codes listed three stages of food insecurity: near-scarcity, scarcity and famine, and were highly influential in the creation of subsequent famine warning or measurement systems. The early warning system developed to monitor the region inhabited by the Turkana people in northern Kenya also has three levels, but links each stage to a pre-planned response to mitigate the crisis and prevent its deterioration.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. Famine does not begin to kill people until it destroys livelihoods. 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. Only when all means of self-support are exhausted does the affected population begin to migrate in search in food and fall victim to outright starvation. Famine may thus be seen 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 under 1000 fatalities defining a "minor famine" and a "catastrophic famine" resulting in over 1,000,000 deaths.

Historical famine, by region - Contents

Famine in Africa
In the mid-22nd century BCE, a sudden and short-lived climactic 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." ( [2])Famine has been widespread in Africa in the modern era, as well. 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.Other 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. AIDS is also having long-term economic effects on agriculture by reducing the available workforce.Recent examples include Ethiopia in 1973 and mid- 1980s, Sudan in the late- 1970s and Niger in 2005.

Famine in Asia


China's Qing Dynasty bureaucracy, which devoted extensive attention to minimizing famines, is credited with averting a series of famines following El Niño-Southern Oscillation-linked droughts and floods. These events are comparable, though somewhat smaller in scale, to the ecological trigger events of China's vast 19th Century famines. (Pierre=Etienne Will, Bureaucracy and Famine) Qing China carried out its relief efforts, which included vast shipments of food, a requirement that the rich open their storehouses to the poor, and price regulation, as part of a state guarantee of subsistence to the peasantry (known as ming-sheng).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 1877-78 famine, 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)In China, the Great Leap Forward of Mao Zedong was a large-scale social experiment. It was intended to recenter the economy on the basis of more extensive labor power and communal agriculture, but was an economic and social failure. This resulted in a massive famine, which was triggered or amplified by unfavorable climatic conditions. In the wake of the Great Leap Famine, Mao reversed agricultural collectivization policies, which were effectively dismantled in 1978. China has not experienced a major famine since 1961. (Woo-Cummings, 2002)


There were 14 famines in India between 11th and 17th century (Bhatia, 1985). 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 South India, Bihar in the north, and Bengal in the east in the latter half of the 19th century, killing between 30 and 40 million Indians. 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 Second Anglo-Afghan War), inflationary measures that increased the price of food, and substantial exports of staple crops from India to Britain. 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 nearly one-third of the population. The famines continued until independence in 1948, with the Bengal Famine of 1943-44 - among the most devastating - killing 3 million to 4 million Indians 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 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.In 1966, there was a 'near-miss' in Bihar, when the United States allocated 900,000 tons of grain to fight the famine. It is the closest independent India came to a famine and is insightful into the workings of a democratic government that will even beg and borrow to avert disasters such as these.While India has averted famine throughout its independent history, it has failed to arrest chronic malnutrition. Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze estimate that excess deaths from malnutrition and poverty (using China as a baseline) amounted to 3.9 million per year. India's death rate is 12 per thousand, while China's is 7 per thousand. They concluded, "This implies that every eight years or so more people die in India because of its higher regular death rate than died in China in the gigantic famine of 1958-61." (cited in Woo-Cummings, 2002, p. 12)

North Korea

Famine struck North Korea in the mid-1990s, set off by unprecedented floods. This autarkic urban, industrial society had achieved food self-sufficiency in prior decades through a massive industrialization of agriculture. However, the economic system relied on massive concessionary inputs of fossil fuels, primarily from the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. When the Soviet collapse and China's marketization switched trade to a hard currency, full price basis, Korea's economy collapsed. The vulnerable agricultural sector experienced a massive failure in 1995-96, expanding to full-fledged famine by 1997-99. Hundreds of thousands if not millions died of starvation (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 are no-longer 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 famine in the 1980s, which prompted many people to flee the country.

Famine in Europe

Western 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 labour-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 labour, 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 labourers in money, increasing the commercialization of rural society. This commercialization had a profound impact on the behaviour of peasants. Farmers were interested in increasing labour 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 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.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 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. 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.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.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 Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849) was in no small part the result of policies of the Whig government of the United Kingdom under Lord Russell. Unlike a government facing revolt at home, the London-based government stood by its commitment to laissez-faire economics, even in the face of massive starvation in Ireland.


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.


England also 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.


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 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 1946 due to the severe drought.
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