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Human history is replete with occurrences of famine causing death by starvation of hundreds of thousands or even millions. Some famines have had their origin in environmental problems such as long periods of drought or exceptional floods; other were provoked by human action. Whatever the causes of origin, however, in the modern world famine can be prevented, which may not always have been possible in the past. When famine still occurs, it is either a result of deliberate action intended to cause starvation, serious mismanagement, bad or nonresponsive government failing to respond adequately to natural disasters, or lack of sufficient international cooperation in redressing a threatening situation. Some provoked famines may legally be characterized as genocide or crime against humanity, but the problem of famine goes far beyond such cases.

Concept of Famine

The term famine is usually reserved to describe a condition that is temporary and extreme. It is temporary in that it constitutes a departure from the normal conditions in the area or for the particular group affected, and it is extreme in the sense that the number of persons affected by starvation is much higher than normal.

Most famines affect mainly the poorer and most vulnerable population, often those who for a variety of reasons are "food insecure" in advance. Some of the provoked famines, particularly those that can be classified as genocide, are targeted at persons belonging to one or more particular national, racial, or ethnic groups.

Famine is therefore distinguished from conditions of chronic hunger. In the past there have always been, and there continue to be, large groups of people who suffer from severe undernutrition due to insufficient access to adequate food. The percentage of the world population suffering from chronic hunger has undoubtedly been significantly reduced over the centuries, but the number is still staggeringly high. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that in 2003 the number of food insecure (undernourished) was 798 million, and the number of undernourished people continues to steadily increase in South Asia and Central Africa.

Causes of Famine

Even when conditions of famine exist, the problem in the contemporary world is not an overall lack of food. Famine emerges when a significant number of persons are physically or economically barred from access to food. They may be physically barred through deliberate action by some who have the power to do so, such as during the existence of the Warsaw ghetto (1941–1942) or the siege of Leningrad (1941–1944), or because of the unavailability of transport, which makes it impossible to bring the food to those who need it. They may be economically barred because they do not have the means to purchase food that is available on the market, either because they live from subsistence agriculture and have no income to purchase food when their own production fails, or because their other sources of income have failed or the prices have skyrocketed so they are no longer able to purchase what they need. Amartya Sen, awarded the Nobel Prize in economics, has effectively demonstrated that famines, apart from deliberate policies of starvation, affect mainly those who lose their productive assets or entitlements in the market.

In discussions of the causes of famine, it has been common to classify them as either natural or manmade. The famines considered to be caused by natural events are those originating from an extreme or long spell of drought, or excessive floods, or a disease on the staple food plant (i.e., the Irish famine). Manmade famines are, primarily, those that have been deliberately provoked, or caused by war or conflict even if the starvation was not intended, or those resulting from extreme mismanagement, such as the Chinese famine of 1958 through 1962. At closer inspection, however, one recognizes that every famine transpiring in modern times has had a manmade element (or elements). This is important to recognize, because it implies that conditions of famine can be prevented or stopped in their infancy, provided appropriate rules of responsibility and accountability are in place. Neither droughts nor floods nor plant diseases can always be prevented, but their consequences in terms of famine can.

The ability to prevent famines has not always existed in the past. Although many records of preventive and relief measures date far back in history, conditions were not such that widespread starvation could be prevented when there were major spells of drought or floods. In times or areas where subsistence agriculture dominated, general food insecurity was widespread and little surplus was available to help those affected by major natural disasters; nor were there transport possibilities to bring food from afar, if stocks did exist. Provoked famines were also common, including the use of siege to starve the defendants of stronghold in feudal times. Frequent and extensive wars ravaging vast areas, such as the Thirty Years' War, also brought starvation to many as a consequence of both the disruption of production and extensive pillage of cattle or food produced.

Famines in History

Provoked famines were part of the European conquest and settlement of the Americas. The ethnic cleansing of Native Americans to seize land for the colonizers and settlers included wars, the destruction of their sources of livelihood such as the deliberate encouragement of hunting to decimate the bison on the American plains, and death marches such as the Trail of Tears. In South America the use of slave labor under famine conditions led to the massive death and decimation of the indigenous population.

One of the worst famines in modern times in the Western world was the Irish famine of 1846 through 1849. It started as the result of a prolonged potato blight that over several years caused the nation's potatoes to rot. While this occurred not only in Ireland but also in other parts of Europe, it had a devastating impact in Ireland. Four factors caused the disease to become a tragedy of enormous proportions: As a result of the British occupation and Cromwell's wars, most of the Irish were peasants engaged in subsistence agriculture. The potato was their staple food. They had little income beyond whatever minuscule incomes they could make from the sale of the potato and other farm products. Second, they did not own their farmsteads, but were tied to Protestant or British landlords who insisted that they should continue to pay their rent even when no income could be obtained. As they could not pay, hundreds of thousands were evicted. Third, Ireland was not an independent country with its own government, which might have recognized its responsibility to take remedial action; Ireland was under British rule. The fourth and most serious obstacle to the prevention of the famine was the stubborn belief, in British political circles of the time, in the laissez-faire ideology, the ultraliberalistic theory that government should not interfere in economic activity. In his book on the history of the Irish famine, Cecil Woodham-Smith writes:

Not only were the rights of property sacred; private enterprise was revered and respected and given almost complete liberty, and on this theory, which incidentally gave the employer and the landlord freedom to exploit his fellow man, the prosperity of nineteenth-century England had been unquestioningly based.

The influence of laissez-faire on the treatment of Ireland during the famine is impossible to exaggerate. Almost without exception the high officials and politicians responsible for Ireland were fervent believers in non-interference by Government, and the behavior of the British authorities only becomes explicable when their fanatic belief in private enterprise and their suspicions of any action which might be considered Government intervention are borne in mind (1961, p. 54).

Subjected to absentee landlords and this fervent ideology espoused by the government controlling them, the Irish were doomed. Governmental inaction in the face of certain economic dynamics, coupled with marginal and misplaced efforts to give some relief, caused one million persons to die from starvation and related illnesses; nearly two million emigrated, a large part of them to the United States. Ireland's population dropped from eight million people before the famine to five million in the years following it.

Severe famines originating in droughts or floods occurred in India under British rule, during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Although some modest remedial action was taken by the British through measures required under the Famine Codes previously established by them, hundreds of thousands starved to death. Once again, one of the main problems was the ruling government's strong faith in the laissez-faire principle. The export of grain from India was fully permitted even when famines raged.

The last major famine during British rule was the Bengal famine in 1943. It was not a result of any environmental or other natural disaster, but of policies and measures adopted due to the ongoing war and the advance of the Japanese armies. A war boom had emerged in Calcutta due to the high military presence and various military preparations, from which a part of the population profited. On the other hand, a scarcity of food emerged as a consequence of several factors, including Japan's occupation of Burma, one of the traditional sources of rice imports. While food existed in other Indian provinces, self-regulating food control powers given to the provinces in 1941 hindered supplies to Bengal at affordable prices. As a consequence of the increased purchasing power in Calcutta at a time of scarcity, the price of rice increased significantly. The losers were the landless rural workers and many of the traditional fishermen population who lost the ability to fish due to restrictions related to wartime conditions. The Famine Codes, which had been adopted by the British in the previous century, were never invoked during the Bengal famine in 1943; they were, in fact, deliberately ignored. It has been estimated that some three to five million people perished during the famine. To a large extent this could have been prevented by appropriate and resolute government action, had a responsive government, democratically accountable to those affected by the threatening famine, been in place.

The Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Young Turk regime in the final years of the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1918 included death marches with massive starvation on the way. In a 1999 review of other manmade or provoked famines of the twentieth century, Fiona Watson describes the allied blockade of Germany during World War I, the Soviet (mainly Ukrainian) famine from 1932 to 1934, conditions in the Warsaw ghetto from November 1940 to July 1942, the siege of Leningrad from September 1941 to January 1944, the Chinese famine from 1958 to 1962, and the Sudan famine of 1998. The Soviet famine of 1932 and 1933, which hit Ukraine the hardest, resulted from the enforced collectivization of agricultural production as part of the five-year plan launched by Joseph Stalin. The plan met intense opposition particularly from the self-owning farmers (kulaks) in Ukraine, some of whom engaged in armed resistance in response. The response by Stalin was ruthless; a combination of massive, outright killing and extensive food deprivation ensued. Agricultural production plummeted and fell by 40 percent, and most of the food produced was forcibly seized. The Soviet Union doubled its grain exports to raise currency for equipment for industrialization, while famine ravaged rural Ukraine. Stalin prohibited relief grain to be delivered to Ukraine in order to break the backbone of his opposition. The conditions were horrible and even cannibalism is reported to have occurred. It is estimated that somewhere between five and eight million people died during the famine.

Starvation was also extensively used by both German and Japanese forces during World War II, partly as a deliberate component of the Holocaust, partly by taking the food resources of the civilian population in occupied territories to feed the occupying army.

From 1940 to 1942 the Warsaw ghetto was an early measure in the Holocaust conducted by Hitler's Germany against the Jews. Following the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the German occupants confined some 380,000 Jews in a small section of the city of Warsaw. Others were soon relocated there, and the population subsequently increased to 445,000. A wall was then built around the ghetto. The Jews were prohibited from leaving the ghetto at risk of being shot on sight. By 1941 the official Nazi ration allowed 2,613 kilocalories (kcal) per day for Germans in Poland, 699 kcal for Poles, and 184 kcal for Jews in the ghetto. The German intention was to destroy the ghetto's inhabitants through mass starvation and related infectious illnesses. Mortality increased steeply. Nevertheless, the Germans did not succeed in starving all the ghetto's residents, partly because outside groups were able to smuggle in some food. In July 1942 the Germans took the next step in the Holocaust by deporting the Jews to the gas chambers of Treblinka and Auschwitz.

The siege of Leningrad by German forces from September 1941 to January 1944 lasted for nine hundred days. The siege made supplying food extremely difficult. The German Luftwaffe prevented airlifts, and transport over land was highly precarious and severely limited. During the period of the siege the city was incessantly bombarded from the air and by artillery. The bombardment also destroyed many food storehouses. It is estimated that deaths due to starvation numbered somewhere between 630,000 and 1 million people. The prewar population of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) had been some 2.5 million persons.

The famine causing the greatest number of deaths during the twentieth century was the catastrophic Great Leap Forward of Mao Zedong's China, from 1958 to 1962. It had some similarities with Stalin's provoked famine in Ukraine in 1932, but was not pursued with the same targeted brutality. The number of deaths, however, was much higher. Like Stalin, Mao wanted to achieve industrialization through a vast increase in steel production, while at the same time "modernizing" agriculture for grain export and feeding the workers of the expanding industrialization. Peoples' communes were established, private plots were abolished, and obligatory state procurement of grain at low prices was institutionalized. In the midst of the enforced transformation of agriculture, several natural disasters occurred. Coupled with the disarray resulting from the enforced transformation, this caused grain output to fall dramatically. The local representatives of the authorities did not dare to report the truth, but falsely insisted that harvests had increased substantially. The state procurement was set at 40 percent of the alleged output, which meant that in some places the whole harvest was seized. As a result, large parts of the rural population had little or no access to food. Famine soared in the countryside, but Mao and other leaders appear to have been misled by their own propaganda and by fabricated reports submitted by local party officials, making the Chinese authorities believe that they had many millions of tons of grain more than what was actually on hand.

During the final decades of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first century, Central and Southern Africa have been the regions of the world most affected by, and most likely to experience, famine. Many of these famines were caused or influenced by armed conflict: Biafra in 1969, Ethiopia in 1984, Angola from 1995 to the present, Democratic Republic of the Congo from 2000 to 2003. Others were the result of droughts or floods combined with severe mismanagement and political manipulation, such as the famine that occurred in Zimbabwe from 2001 to 2003, when food was used as a weapon by preventing the access of food relief to persons who do not support the incumbent government. In Southern Africa the HIV-AIDS epidemic has emerged as a new factor seriously increasing food insecurity and the famine risk in the region.

Responsibility and Accountability under International Law

Famines and starvation are often manmade—by intent, mismanagement, or bad governance. Even when the origin is a severe environmental deterioration or other natural phenomena, it is possible to prevent its evolution into a famine. This section examines the issue of responsibility under international law for acts or omissions causing famine.

States have the primary responsibility for compliance with international law. Part of that responsibility is to criminalize acts and omissions where required by international law. Individuals can also to an increasing extent be held responsible directly under international law.

War Crimes

Humanitarian law in armed conflict is primarily based on the four Geneva Conventions adopted in 1949 and the two Additional Protocols adopted in 1977. The main function of this law is to ensure that the parties to international conflicts, and to a somewhat lesser extent in internal conflicts, respect the civilian population, prisoners of war, the sick and wounded, and other military personnel who are no longer taking part in the hostilities.

Additional Protocol I, Article 54, deals with protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. Its paragraph 1 prohibits starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, whereas paragraph 2 states that it is a crime to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

It is quite obvious that many of the measures adopted in past wars would fall under this provision, had it then existed. The German siege of Leningrad, including the shelling and bombardment destroying the food supplies, the extensive confiscation of food resources in the occupied territories, and the scorched earth policies applied by retreating German forces in northern Norway due to the advance of Soviet forces in 1944 and 1945, would all have constituted violations of Article 54.

The rule did not exist during World War II, however. The Additional Protocols were adopted only in 1977, while a first beginning had been made with the Fourth Geneva Convention adopted in 1949, which addressed the protection of the civilian population in occupied territories. Article 23 of that convention provides for assistance to be given to the most vulnerable categories of the civilian population, particularly in the form of foodstuffs. During the Nuremberg Trials, the destruction or removal of foodstuffs on a large scale, leading to starvation of the affected population, was held to be a crime against humanity and was included among the offenses for which several of the Nazi and Japanese leaders were found guilty. Examples may be found in Gabrielle Kirk McDonald and Olivia Swaak-Goldman's Substantive and Procedural Aspects of International Criminal Law, Volume II.

Additional Protocol II, regarding noninternational armed conflicts, contains in its Article 14 a similar prohibition of the starvation of civilians as a method of combat and the same type of acts as described above. This can also be considered a specific application of common Article 3 to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which imposes on parties to the conflict the obligation to guarantee humane treatment for all persons not participating in hostilities and, in particular, prohibits violence toward life.


Among the acts constituting genocide is the deliberate infliction of conditions of life on a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group calculated to bring about the destruction, in whole or in part, of the group. Under this heading fall measures such as denying members of a group food, water, shelter, health care, and other necessities of life. Provoked famine that targeted in a systematic way the members of a group would clearly constitute genocide, as was extensively done during the Third Reich Germany. The creation of, and conditions in, the Warsaw ghetto would be one such obvious case.

The Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), on which the Nuremberg Trials was based, did not include the category of genocide, but used the terms crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Many of the actions committed by those defendants convicted under crimes against humanity would now more properly fall under the category of genocide.

There are strong reasons to argue that the lack of access to food resulting from the death marches perpetrated against the Armenian population by the Young Turk regime toward the end of the Ottoman Empire was also an intended genocide, even though this claim is hotly contested by the Turkish government (Charny, 1999). Representatives of indigenous peoples also consider many of the measures of ethnic cleansing perpetrated against Native Americans, including famines, to have constituted genocidal action.

In addition, the severe deprivation of food has a devastating impact on the mental capacity of persons, in particular children. Such acts, directed against a group as defined in the 1948 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, would therefore also be held to cause serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group.

Crimes against Humanity

The term crimes against humanity was first used in a codified way as basis for the jurisdiction of the IMT in its prosecution of major Nazi war criminals (the Nuremberg Trials) and has since been elaborated through the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR) and particularly the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Under the ICC Statute, Article 7, crimes against humanity includes any of the acts listed there when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack. As distinct from genocide, it is not limited to cases where a particular group is targeted. No discriminatory intent is required. As an example, the extermination policies of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were directed at all groups, including the majority Khmer population. Even if the action to that extent could not have been defined as genocide, it is clearly a case of crimes against humanity. Second, in contrast to the Nuremberg Trials, to bring measures within the ambit of crimes against humanity under the ICC Statute, they do not have to be committed during an armed conflict.

Among the acts listed in ICC Statute, Article 7, constituting a crime against humanity are "extermination," "deportation or forcible transfer of population," and "other inhuman acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or to physical health." But in order to be held as a crime against humanity, the act must be part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population. It must be an active attack, thus not only the neglect of a country's duty to take remedial action when a significant number of people lose their access to food as a result of a natural disaster or economic developments. Although the Soviet famine of 1932 in Ukraine today would be labeled as genocide or a crime against humanity, the Chinese famine from 1958 to 1962 would not be so labeled, because it was clearly not an intended attack on the civilian population. Similarly, neither the Irish famine from 1846 to 1849 nor the Bengal famine from 1943 to 1944 could, even under present international law, be labeled as genocide or crimes against humanity.

Human Rights Law

State obligations under conventional international human rights law exist on three levels: the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights concerned. All these levels are relevant in regard to the prevention of famine. State parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have recognized under Article 11 of that covenant the right of everyone to adequate food and the fundamental right of freedom from hunger. This establishes a set of obligations on states that, if fully implemented, would prevent famines from arising. These obligations have been clarified in General Comment No. 12 of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. (The General Comment can be found at the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, under Documents, Charter-based bodies, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.)

Amartya Sen, probably the leading expert on the study of famines, argues in his 1999 Development as Freedom that "appropriate policies and actions can indeed eradicate the terrible problems of hunger in the modern world. Based on recent economic, political and social analysis, it is, I believe, possible to identify the measures that can bring about the elimination of famines and a radical reduction in chronic undernourishment" (p. 160).

It should be added that this would require a general recognition of the responsibility by governments and the international community to ensure the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger. This will not only require responsive governments at the national level, making full use of the economic, political, and social insight referred to by Sen, but also a corollary duty of outside states and international organizations to assist the affected states in meeting their responsibility, in line with their commitment under the UN Charter, Articles 55 and 56. This international responsibility is gradually being recognized, although still imperfectly. The World Food Programme and a host of humanitarian organizations, including the Red Cross and Red Crescent, play a major role, but more commitment and coordination will be required to make famines truly a problem of the past.

SEE ALSO Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and the Armenian Genocide; Armenians in Russia and the USSR; Death March; Kulaks; Ukraine (Famine); Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


Charny, Israel W., ed. (1999). Encyclopedia of Genocide, Vols. 1 and 2. Denver, Colo.: ABC-CLIO.

Drèze, Jean, and Amartya Sen, eds. (1989). Hunger and Public Action. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Drèze, Jean, and Amartya Sen, eds. (1991). The Political Economy of Hunger. Vol. I: Entitlement and Well-Being, Vol. II: Famine Prevention, and Vol. III: Endemic Hunger. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press.

McDonald, Gabrielle Kirk, and Olivia Swaak-Goldman, eds. (2000). Substantive and Procedural Aspects of International Criminal Law, Vols. I–III. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.

Newman, Lucile, ed. (1995). Hunger in History. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers.

Ratner, S. S., and Jason S. Abrams, eds. (2001). Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities in International Law, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, Amartya (1981). Poverty and Famines. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Sen, Amartya (1999). Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Standing Commitee on Nutrition (2004). Fifth Report on the World Nutrition Situation. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Watson, Fiona (November 1999). "Millenium Special: One Hundred Years of Famine." Field Exchange Online 6. Available from http://www.ennonline.net/fex/08/index.html.

Woodham-Smith, Cecil (1961). The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849. London: Penguin Books.

World Food Programme (2001). Enabling Development: Food Assistance in South Asia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Asbjørn Eide

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“Famine is like insanity, hard to define but glaring enough when recognized. … one country will define as food shortage what another country would call famine” (Taylor 1947, pp. 98, 102). In recent years, and particularly in the United States, where food surpluses have been embarrassing politically (perhaps also morally), journals have been prone to report from abroad as “famines” what subsequently appear as shortages or merely threats of shortage. Shortages are not infrequently relieved before they become famines.

True famine is shortage of total food so extreme and protracted as to result in widespread persisting hunger, notable emaciation in many of the affected population, and a considerable elevation of community death rate attributable at least in part to deaths from starvation. Criteria do not exist to measure the degree of hunger, emaciation, or elevation of death rate serving to differentiate famine from shortage. The archetypical famine extends over a wide area and affects a large population. Starvation deaths on a small scale, as among members of an isolated family, a small hamlet, a group of travelers in wild country, an icebound ship, would not commonly be characterized as famine. Acute shortage of food for a few weeks, such as preharvest hunger in some parts of the underdeveloped world, is not famine. Lack of a particular customary food, such as sugar or beef, is not famine if there is abundance of other items. Shortage of a particular vitamin or mineral in a population, evidenced perhaps by uncommonly heavy incidence of scurvy, beriberi, pellagra, rickets, or impaired vision, is not famine, although in recent decades the word has been applied to such shortages.

The members of a community beset by famine gradually become greatly emaciated and increasingly weak and listless–eventually to the point of lying in homes or along the streets and roads, utterly inactive, skeletonized, often with swollen bellies, waiting for death. In famine-stricken regions beggars are encountered in abnormal numbers. There are riots, aimless wanderings, purposeful migrations; men, women, and children comb fields, alleys, and dumps, hoping to find a scrap of edible material. Livestock owned by the poor are sold or eaten.

A house-to-house survey in north China during the famine of 1920-1921 revealed that people were eating, among other items not in their normal diets, “flour made of ground leaves, fuller’s earth, flower seed, poplar buds, corncobs,... sawdust,. . . cotton seed, elm bark,. . . peanut hulls, sweet potato vines ground . . .” (Mallory 1926, p. 2). Kravchenko (1946, p. 113), who as an official of the government witnessed the famine of 1932-1933 in the Soviet Union, quotes a young peasant woman: “I will not tell you about the dead. … The half-dead, the nearly-dead are even worse. There are hundreds of people in Petrovo bloated with hunger. I don’t know how many die every day. Many are so weak that they no longer come out of their houses. A wagon goes around now and then to pick up the corpses. We’ve eaten everything we could lay our hands on–cats, dogs, field mice, birds. When it’s light tomorrow you will see the trees stripped of their bark. … And the horse manure has been eaten. … Sometimes there are whole grains in it.” Upon such horrors in a famine-ridden area are superimposed an upsurge of burglary, robbery with violence, murder for gain. Cannibalism occurs but is a rare as well as secret event of which little can be known. Sorokin (1942, p. 81) holds the opinion that less than one-third of one per cent of a population in noncannibalistic societies would practice cannibalism under pressure of starvation. Disease flourishes abnormally as resistance is reduced by low food intake.

The calamity of famine falls most heavily upon the poor, unless the state is dispossessing and punishing a former aristocracy or bourgeoisie. Food prices begin to rise even before damages to crops or military or political interferences with food inflow become generally apparent. People with ample purchasing power begin to accumulate stocks of food, either for their own future use or for sale at higher prices in weeks to come. Markets are swept clear of foodstuffs. Employment shrinks, and wages, where there is employment, seem not to rise in proportion to food prices. Families with low incomes (if not dependents of the wealthy) feel the pinch of hunger first. They sell their possessions–their clothing, household furnishings, house timbers; even the means customarily used to provision themselves with food are sold. According to Wood-ham Smith, during the great Irish potato famine of the 1840s fishermen all over Ireland pawned or sold their gear to buy meals (1962, p. 291). During that and other famines many poor peasants have eaten the seed necessary to produce a new crop. Children have been sold in Chinese famines; and men have sold themselves into slavery. Prostitution burgeons. Buyers seem always to appear, for although famine may decimate a large population, it does not annihilate. Some members of a stricken community profit from the circumstances of famine. Some are protected by their position in, or by power of, the government.

Causes . Famine has many causes. Nearly a century ago Walford (1878-1879, p. 450) listed 12, classifying them into natural causes beyond human control and artificial causes within human control. This distinction remains valid in a general way, although it is certainly true that man has learned to modify some of the natural causes as well as to minimize their impact. Natural causes include drought, excessive rains and flood, unseasonably cold weather, typhoons and other high winds, tidal waves, depredations by vermin and such insects as locusts, and plant diseases. They tend chiefly to reduce production of food and to destroy stocks. Occasionally, though mostly for short periods, floods or frosts restrict the flow of foodstuffs from surplus to deficit areas. The artificial causes–commonly political–include warfare that involves siege or blockade, or destruction of food stocks or growing grain; and wartime strains on economies that diminish manpower, machines, or fertilizers, thus reducing cultivated acreage, yields, and production. Revolutions, particularly when they involve a struggle between peasantry and officialdom, may reduce food acreages and yields and thus contribute to famine; so may excessive taxation or collection from peasants of grain surpluses, which happened in Soviet Russia in 1932-1933. It is difficult to perceive in the vague history of famines a major one in which political causes alone were operative, although this may be said of a good many minor famines–typified in sieges of cities. An age-old device of war is to impose famine on the enemy.

The great famines of the world have been due to natural forces, frequently intensified, however, by political factors. Sometimes economic or demographic situations–prevalence of poverty, including unemployment, peasant agriculture of the bare subsistence type, or many landless agricultural laborers in a population of high density–are regarded as causes of famines. They certainly make for vulnerability to famine, but unlike natural or political catastrophes are chronic rather than episodic in character.

The principal natural causes of major famines have been deficiency of rainfall (drought) or excess of rainfall (flood). Probably no major famines, but only localized and minor ones, have been due to excessively cold weather, high winds, or infestations of insects or vermin. Even a great swarm of locusts consuming every growing plant would rarely spread over an area more than a fraction as large as that covered by major drought or flood. Plant disease in the form of potato blight, however, did emerge on one occasion–in Ireland in 1845-1849–as the outstanding natural cause of a famine of great severity. Drought outranks flood as a major cause, except perhaps in north China, where in some summers the Yellow River may rise so high that it overflows its diked banks and renders unproductive the vast agricultural plains of its valley. Few flood famines of major proportions are recorded elsewhere, but one did occur, in the years 1315, 1316, and 1317, in the British Isles and on the Continent east and north of the Pyrenees and Alps at least through present-day Poland; mortality was high (Lucas 1930). Continuous rain greatly reduced the harvests of grain crops, and pestilence (murrain) killed many farm animals.

Famine follows upon extreme shortage, insufficiently relieved by inshipment, of the staple starchy food crop of the afflicted area. That crop is usually grain–usually wheat or rye in temperate zones; rice, a millet, or sorghum in warmer climates. Famine or general food shortage in northeastern Brazil, however, will chiefly represent deficiency of the manioc crop; in Ireland it was the potato crop. The grains and starchy roots provide the bulk of the energy-yielding food for most of the world’s population. In the absence of shortage of grain crops or (rarely) of starchy roots, a major natural famine is unlikely to occur. Grain is relatively cheap per thousand calories of nutriment, readily storable, and easily transported and processed into meal or flour. It is the most serviceable foodstuff to be brought in to ward off or relieve famine.

Geographical incidence . Whether natural or artificial, famine is always regional or local, never world-wide or continent-wide–or even nationwide in such vast countries as India, China, Russia, and Brazil. Conceivably, some large areas of the world have escaped, if judgment can be based upon the two major chronicles of famine (see Walford 1878-1879; Minnesota … 1950). Therein no mention is made of famine in Australia, in the great islands of the East Indies, or in Africa south of the Sahara. In North America and Central America, the only listing is of a famine in Mexico in 1051 (“Famine which caused the Toltecs to migrate”), and this is perhaps not clearly authenticated. South America seems to have experienced major famine only in northeastern Brazil (the sertāo), an area subject to recurrent severe droughts. Although the chroniclers of world famine make no mention of Japan, historians record three famines there in different regions, in 1732-1733, 1783-1787, and 1832-1836, severe enough to provoke violent riots (Sansom 1963, p. 222).

Europe west of Russia has witnessed no natural famine since the great Irish calamity of the 1840s, although artificial famines on a much smaller scale accompanied World War I, at least in Greece and in the western part of Holland. There were food shortages elsewhere both then and during and after World War I. Ancel Keys (see Minnesota … 1950, p. 1251) lists since 1850 one famine in Persia (1871), one in Asia Minor (1874-1875), one in Egypt (1897), one in Brazil (1877), and one or two in Morocco (1877-1878), indicating infrequent occurrence in those countries. In Russia over the same period no fewer than ten famines are noted, and in India 13, not counting the most recent one, the great Bengal famine of 1943. The number of famines in China since 1850 is uncertain, but a severe one occurred in 1877–1878; others in 1919-1920 and 1929-1930; and lesser ones in 1906, 1911, 1916, and 1924. Russia, India, and China over the past century have encompassed the outstanding famine areas of the world. Each contains regions adjacent to deserts, where rainfall is regularly low, highly variable, and of summer incidence; crops tend to fail in the exceptionally low-rainfall years. These regions also have a rather dense and impoverished agricultural population. In Russia the region most frequently drought-ridden centers in the Volga basin; in China, the valley of the Yellow River; in India, the northwest and the Deccan plateau. Each country also contains regions of abundant and dependable rainfall, where famine rarely occurs. But in all the great famines of the twentieth century natural and artificial causes worked simultaneously —drought and flood, war and revolution.

Relation to disease . Since famine stimulates human diseases, statistical differentiation between deaths from starvation and deaths from disease is practically impossible, as is close measurement of the degree to which famine elevates death (and morbidity) rates above normal levels. A dependable ranking of the famines of even the past century from most to least lethal is out of the question. Nevertheless, it can probably be said that there was mortality of a million persons or more above average at least in the Irish famine of 1845-1849; the Indian of 1877-1878, 1896-1897, 1899-1900, and 1943; the Russian of 1921-1922 and 1932-1933; and the Chinese of 1877-1878 and 1929-1930.

Famine reduces resistance to many diseases, including malaria, influenza, and tuberculosis; smallpox, cholera, typhus, or relapsing fever may plague the afflicted regions, especially if the population is crowded into unsanitary refugee camps, as on the fringes of cities. Acute deficiency diseases take a much larger toll than usual, for reduced food consumption is certain to bring intake of some of the essential vitamins and minerals below requirements. Acute and protracted diarrhea (“bloody flux”), induced by polluted water and the eating of improper materials, appears to be a lethal scourge, particularly among children. Famine not only increases death rates but also reduces birth rates, thus slowing growth of population. Advancing scientific knowledge of diseases and growth of both national and international health services in the twentieth century have greatly lessened the risk of high mortality as a result of famine.

Relation to migration . The circumstances of famine induce people to flee from it, not only to escape but also to seek work that will permit them to restore purchasing power in some form to family and friends left behind. Refugees from the countryside often flock to cities, especially centers of government. Of those who flee, many return upon the abatement of famine conditions, but others find new homes. The drought-ridden sertāo of northeastern Brazil has witnessed both the flight and return and the permanent export of population–not abroad, but to other parts of the nation (James 1942, p. 425; Smith 1879, pp. 398-435). Scarcity-induced migration that crosses national frontiers has not been common. The conspicuous example in history is the great migration of more than a million people from Ireland during and after the famine of the 1840s, the bulk of whom came to the United States, remaining to participate in and influence that country’s development. Internal migrations that may have occurred in Russia, China, and India have not been carefully recorded or studied. In general, demographers appear not to lay much stress on famine as a cause of the surging migrations of history or prehistory. The unrecorded breakup of families attributable to famine migration must have caused millions of individual catastrophes. The famine in Ireland led to the conviction in Great Britain that at all times basic food must be available as cheaply as possible to the poor, and the Corn Laws that had long held grain-prices high were repealed in 1846. Famines or shortages there and elsewhere have tended to force a lightening of the burden of taxes and rents upon peasant farmers and a wider acceptance by governments of responsibility for prevention and relief.

Remedial measures . Five centuries ago famine was regarded almost throughout the world as inevitable and was so accepted, often as a manifestation of divine wrath. Occasionally, however, there were rulers who sought to prevent or relieve it. The Biblical story of Joseph in Egypt, storing grain in “fat” years against the “lean” that might follow, exemplifies probably the most common method of famine prevention in antiquity and medieval times. The rulers of the Inca Empire guarded against famine by storage and by construction of irrigation canals. Irrigation, a safeguard against famine because it both elevates and stabilizes the acre-yields of crops, was practiced some 5,000 years ago in Sumer and is very ancient elsewhere in Asia and north Africa, but famine can hardly have been the sole stimulus for irrigation. Flood control by dikes and dams is also an ancient device which militates against famine but has other values. Destruction of stores of grain and of irrigation and flood-control works is obviously a method of creating artificial famine.

Natural famines having their origin mainly in drought or flood, sometimes in plant disease or insect pest, are not now regarded as inevitable. Within nations, a naturally induced or threatened food shortage is certain to be met by domestic efforts to ward off or relieve it. This was not true in the Soviet Union as late as 1932-1933 but occurred there in 1963-1964, following a very severe drought, when a huge quantity of grain was imported and paid for. So it was in China a year or two earlier. India and Pakistan have been able since war ended in 1945 to arrange, partly on the basis of international credits, for sporadic grain imports sufficient to preclude famine; so also have Brazil and Yugoslavia. The disposition of all governments by the 1960s was to prevent or relieve famine or shortages within their own borders; and of some governments to donate or loan funds or food surpluses to prevent or relieve famine beyond their own borders. The capacity of nations to pay or to loan or donate has increased. International cooperation in famine relief or prevention has increased in the past century, as evidenced by such organizations as the Red Cross, the China Relief commissions, the American Relief Administration of World War I, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration following World War II, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Supplies have been available despite the huge growth of world population; and with the advancement in agriculture everywhere, few localities stand in such risk of drought or pests or plant disease as prevailed even half a century ago. If, nevertheless, natural calamity strikes, the network of transport, by ship overseas, by barge on canal and river, by rail, by truck on roads, even by air, has so grown and is now so far-flung and efficient that stricken regions can be reached. Governments have learned how to ration food in short supply in a manner more equitable than was possible earlier.

Progress in coping with natural famine is thus apparent politically, economically, and socially. Until the end of the twentieth century there seems no reason why true famine of natural origin should be endured in any country, for over so short a time world population seems unlikely to outrun food supplies. What the more distant future holds is purely conjectural. But even in the shorter term, it cannot be said that artificial famine, induced by war or revolution, may not again appear.


[See alsoFOOD.]


Bhatia, B. M. 1963 Famines in India: A Study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India, 1860–1945. New York: Asia Publishing House.

Fisher, Harold H. 1927 The Famine in Soviet Russia, 1919-1923: The Operations of the American Relief Administration. New York; Macmillan

Colder, Frank A.; and HUTCHINSON, LINCOLN 1927 On the Trail of the Russian Famine. Stanford Univ. Press.

James, Preston E. (1942) 1959 Latin America.3d ed. New York: Odyssey.

Jasny, Naum 1949 The Socialized Agriculture of the USSR: Plans and Performance. Stanford Univ. Press.

Knight, Henry 1954 Food Administration in India: 1939–47. Stanford Univ. Press.

Kravchenko, Victor 1946 I Chose Freedom: The Per- sonal and Political Life of a Soviet Official. New York: Scribner.

Loveday, Alexander 1914 The History and Economics of Indian Famines. London: Bell.

Lucas, Henry S. 1930 The Great European Famine of 1315, 1316, and 1317. Speculum5 : 343–377.

Mallory, Walter H. 1926 China: Land of Famine. New York: American Geographical Society.

Minnesota, University OF, LABORATORY OF PHYSIOLOGICAL HYGIENE 1950 The Biology of Human Starvation.2 vols. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Salaman, Redcliffe 1949 The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Sansom, George B. 1963 A History of Japan. Volume 3: 1615–1867. Stanford Univ. Press.

Smith, Herbert H. 1879 Brazil: The Amazons and the Coast. New York: Scribner.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. 1942 Man and Society in Calamity: The Effects of War, Revolution, Famine, Pestilence Upon Human Mind, Behavior, Social Organization and Cultural Life. New York: Dutton.

Taylor, A. E. 1947 Famine. Unpublished manuscript, Stanford Univ., Food Research Institute.

Walford, Cornelius 1878-1879 The Famines of the World: Past and Present. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society41:433-526; 42 : 79–265.

Woodham-Smith, Cecil B. 1962 The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849. New York: Harper. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by New American Library.

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Famine is defined as an extreme shortage of food or lack of access to food by a population, accompanied by an increase in death rates. Deaths during famine occur not only due to malnutrition, but also from infectious diseases to which malnutrition predisposes the population and from the social ills brought about by food shortage. Famine is a true public health emergency, and unfortunately has been a common human experience throughout history. The fundamental menace of famine is expressed in the Biblical reference to the "four horsemen of the apocalypse"meaning famine, pestilence (disease), war, and death.

There have been thousands of famines over the last several centuries. The causes have included natural disasters such as droughts and floods; war, civil strife, and population displacement; and economic failure. In spite of the fact that worldwide food production has improved in the past several decades, and that global food supplies are sufficient to feed the world's current population, an estimated 20 percent of people in developing countriesmore than 800 million peoplelack access to enough food on a regular and predictable basis. The number of countries experiencing severe food shortages has almost tripled since 1990. Compared to poverty, which is the most common cause of malnutrition worldwide, famine is preventable. Access to food has been repeatedly recognized as a basic human right. Promotion of this right requires international cooperation and a coordinated effort.


The immediate causes of famine are inadequate food production or market availability, price fluctuations, and limited household assets. Underlying causes, however, almost always involve misguided or deliberate public policy, repressive political systems, or natural or human-caused disaster. In countries with preexisting widespread poverty, unemployment, or debt, natural and human-caused disasters are the most common causes of food shortages and famine. Additionally, hunger has been often used as a deliberate weapon. Access to food is such a basic human need that control of the food supply translates into direct political and economic power. Over and over again in history, specific populations have been the victims of an interruption of their food supply with the intent to subdue them or drive them away.

An example of the chain of events that leads to a "natural" famine (not the direct result of war or civil strife) is a poor harvest due to a drought or flood, resulting in reduced wages and rising food prices. The overall result is a decline in both food availability and food access.

Large famines caused millions of deaths in the early 1930s in the Ukraine, and in 19591961 in China; both occurred due to policies that resulted in reduced food availability. One of the most recent tragedies with regard to food shortage began in the mid-1990s in North Korea, where a steady economic decline and a series of floods, droughts, and failed harvests was superimposed on the economic blow brought about by the abrupt end of preferential trade with the former Soviet Union. A closed governmental system has limited humanitarian aid in this situation.

War and civil strife are two of the greatest causes of famine. Armies destroy crops and consume available food. Mass migration is also common for those living in war zones. Civil wars often cause famine, as everyone within the country is affected. Famines due to war occurred in Holland in 1945, the Sudan in 1988, Somalia in 1991, and a large famine in Zaire in 1991 was due to civil war. Severe food deprivation characterized the ethnic conflict in the Great Lakes region of Africa in the late 1990s. The Bosnian war of 1998 included deliberate interruption of the flow of basic food supplies to the Kosovar population.

Finally, there are several parts of the world where famines occur on a regular basis. Much of Africa and Southeast Asia are subject to repeated food shortages. Nations in these areas are chronically vulnerable to changes in weather, or they have unstable political situations. India suffered recurrent famines up until the time of independence from colonial rule in the midtwentieth century, but has not experienced a major famine since that time, illustrating that prevention is possible even in chronically famine-prone areas.


The consequences of famine are physical, psychological, social, and economic. Malnutrition results from food shortage within weeks. Children fail to grow and cannot learn in school, and both adults and children experience weight loss, lack of energy, and decreased work ability. Permanent blindness can result from vitamin A deficiency that accompanies a deterioration of dietary quality. Malnutrition also puts people at a high risk of dying from common infectious illnesses. Diseases such as measles, malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea are the most common causes of death during famine. Psychological impacts result from fear and uncertainty about having enough to eat or to feed one's family. Socially, migration is a common occurrence during periods of famine, and resettling in other areas or in refugee camps disrupts social relationships and hierarchies. Lack of food also creates disharmony as people resort to desperate measures (such as stealing) in order to eat, or when old conflicts are renewed due to some groups having more food than others. Losing land ownership and selling valuable assets such as livestock, jewelry, or other goods can prevent families from recovering financially after a famine.


Responses to famine take place at the individual, governmental, and international level. At the individual level, families go through a series of progressively more drastic coping behaviors. First, food consumption becomes more restricted, and households attempt to generate more income to purchase food. Adults will usually restrict their own food consumption in order to protect children. Typically, adults take on extra jobs and unemployed family members enter the labor force to earn additional money. If the stress continues, families borrow or accept donations from friends, relatives, or government agencies, and they may sell household items, livestock, or even vital assets such as seeds and land in order to obtain money to buy food. In extreme cases, people leave their homes and migrate to other areas in order to survive.

Responses at the government level depend upon how early an impending famine is detected and how prepared a government is to respond to the situation. For example, in Rajasthan, India, there is a governmental system of grain storage that can be distributed during periods of shortage. There are also programs in place for public works projects so that people can work for food during a crisis period. Furthermore, investment in roads, trains, and communications helps get food to people faster in times of need. In contrast, most of sub-Saharan Africa has little in the way of effective government antifamine plans and policies. Most of the sharing and distribution of food reserves takes place on an individual or community basis, and most countries do not have food stocks to distribute in case of emergency. Food must be imported, which is expensive, or countries are forced to rely on international food aid when famine threatens.

Many organizations provide food aid to countries and individuals during famines. The World Food Programme of the United Nations is the largest international mechanism for providing food aid where it is needed; up to date information can be found at the program's web site, http://www.wfp.org. The Hunger Site, at http://www.thehungersite.com, provides a world map where each click on a location is linked to donations from multiple donors to the World Food Programme. Many other governmental and nongovernmental organizations are also involved in responding to food emergencies as they arise.


Famine can be prevented in several ways. One strategy is to pay more attention to environmental issues, such as the rotation of crops to help to keep the soil rich in nutrients or maintaining vegetative growth in fields year-round to keep soil from being blown or washed away. New agricultural technologies, including new fertilizers and pesticides and genetically improved crops, can also help avoid famine without harming the environment. Storing food during years of good harvest and redistribution of extra food and seeds to those who need them is another way of maintaining a food reserve. Finally, communication and coordination among communities and governments in need is essential to help prevent famine. Governments in famine-prone areas need to be able to predict in advance what areas may be vulnerable, assess needs, obtain food and necessary supplies, and transport these items to food-short areas in a timely manner. In Africa, a system called the Famine Early Warning System has had success in famine prevention. This program uses several methods to assess impending risks of famine. The program monitors weather in Africa and uses satellite photographs to see if plants are healthy or deteriorating. It also monitors crop growth, food availability, and prices in local markets.

Famines due to "natural" causes can be avoided through coordinated effort to keep governments and people alert and prepared and to provide mechanisms for people to get food when they need it. Food emergencies caused by war, civil strife, and political will depend on recognition of and respect for the fundamental right to food as a basic human right, and on enforcement of this principle in international law.

Gail G. Harrison

Ame Stormer

Nasrin Omidrar

(see also: International Health; Nutrition; Politics of Public Health; Poverty and Health; Refugee Communities; Right to Health; War )


Action Against Hunger (2001). The Geopolitics of Hunger, 20002001: Hunger and Power. Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (1998). The Right to Food in Theory and Practice. New York: United Nations.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service (1992). "Famine-Affected, Refugee and Displaced Populations: Recommendations for Public Health Issues." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 41:176.

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Drought is the proximate cause of most peacetime famines in peasant societies, but excessive rain can have the same effect. The best example of this is the Irish famine from 1845 to 1850. Three phrases guide analysis in this entry: peasant societies, proximate cause, and ultimate cause.


The peasant concept of the good life is the minimum expenditure of physical labor. Minimum labor expenditures equate to subsistence labor norms in food production. In normal crop years, subsistence labor norms lead peasants to grow enough food to last until the next harvest on the assumption that every crop year will be normal. Peasants know that every crop year will not be normal, but they prefer the marginal food safety of normal crop years if they can minimize the labor of cultivation. A minimal expenditure of agricultural labor to grow subsistence amounts of food is known as the subsistence compromise. The practice of the subsistence compromise defines who are peasants.

The practice of the subsistence compromise is clearly seen in most photographs of peasant cultivation practices that reach the media. These photographs show women planting rice sprouts in ponded fields, or dibbling maize or sorghum seeds into poorly prepared ground, or hoeing a patch of maize or sorghum overgrown with weeds, or harvesting grain with a child strapped on their backs. Where are the men for this sustained labor? The only labor that is gender specific to men is plowing and digging potatoes, yams, and cassava. Almost all of the rest of the labor of cultivation is done by women and children. This is why high birthrates are desirable in peasant societies. Children can do much of the agricultural labor that is gender specific to women.


In order to live by subsistence labor norms, peasants willingly endure seasonal hunger in poor crop years and risk famines in consecutive poor crop years. Before the mid-twentieth century, there were few roads or vehicle tracks into peasant villages. Starving peasants fled their villages in search of food (as Irish peasants did) or watched their children starve so that some adults would survive. During the second half of the twentieth century, roads or vehicle tracks were built into most peasant villages. When there was severe hunger, food donations arrived from central governments (to prevent mass migrations to cities that governments could not control) or food was donated by nongovernmental agencies. Donated food was essential to prevent starvation because peasants produced few commodities to sell for money to purchase food.


The marginal food safety of peasant households in normal crop years is due to deficient labor applied to cultivation. The subsistence compromise produces no food surplus for consumption in consecutive poor crop years, and peasants experience privation. The cumulative effect of consecutive poor crop years is famine conditions.

Subsistence Social Values This is an unfamiliar concept for most people in commercial cultures. They find it difficult to believe that cultivators voluntarily produce subsistence amounts of food when increased labor expenditures, especially by males, could produce abundant harvests.

Peasants use four strategies to minimize agricultural labor and, at the same time, produce sufficient food in normal crop years to last until the next harvest. They practice cultivation techniques requiring minimal labor expenditures; they control land use with some variety of communal tenure so that a villages arable land can be continually divided to accommodate additional households; they have many children to whom they can transfer labor at young ages; and they mitigate the worst effects of deficient harvests by sharing food among village households.

Analysis The welfare of peasant households does not depend on the acquisition of money. It depends on control of land use. When peasants control land use they can control labor expenditures and this means performing subsistence labor norms in cultivation. Peasant households can and do reject the earning of money incomes because earning money incomes requires continuous labor. As long as they control land use they have little interest in performing continuous wage labor (commercial labor norms). The reciprocal of subsistence labor norms is accepting privation in poor crop years.

Most economists do not recognize the distinction between subsistence labor norms (subsistence social values) and commercial labor norms (commercial social values). They assume that all persons want to earn money incomes and willingly perform commercial labor norms to acquire sufficient money to constitute an income. This is a false assumption. Economists make this assumption because they confuse monetization with commercial social values. Almost all peasant societies are monetized.

Peasants, however, want to acquire sufficient money to purchase a limited number of manufactured items. The most commonly purchased items are textiles, edged steel tools, steel cooking pots, plastic buckets, and sandals. After they have acquired enough money to purchase these items they cease laboring to produce additional products for market sale. Anthropologists call the money acquired to make these purchases a target sum.

Peasant households can subsist without the use of money as many do in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia, and Indian villages where the Hindu caste system operates. Households subsist without the use of money because the items they purchase can be made by resident artisans (pottery cooking pots, hand-loom textiles), as they were in the past. These items have a customary barter value, usually measured by handfuls or pots of grain.

It is, however, advantageous to purchase manufactured items because they have greater utility and durability. It is also advantageous to purchase them because the labor expended to produce products for market sale is less than that required to make artisan products, and much of this labor can be done by children. If households grow a small amount of food for sale, this is their exchange commodity. In poor crop years, however, it is eaten and no purchases are made of manufactured items. Households subsist without the use of money.

Most economists do not understand that money incomes do not exist in peasant villages. Economists, however, create them by assigning a money value to the harvest of peasants or to the number of hours of labor they assume were expended to grow a households annual food supply. In reality, the food grown by peasants has no money value. If it were sold, peasant households would starve. Likewise, the labor that is expended to grow a subsistence food supply has no market value because no money is received.

Economists create fictitious money incomes for peasant households in order to compare the welfare of peasant households with the welfare of households in commercial cultures. Fictitious incomes are created for peasant households by applying the techniques of financial analysis to subsistence cultures. Fictitious incomes created by economists make peasants poor in relation to the money incomes earned by households in commercial cultures. Peasant households, however, are not poor. They are subsistent. Sometimes economists use terms like subsistence income, nonwage income, implicit income, leisure income, or income concept to indicate that they know the incomes they have created are fictitious; however, they continue to compare real and fictitious incomes. The result is confusion.

The fictitious incomes created by economists cannot be used to compare the welfare of households in subsistence and commercial cultures because incomes in commercial cultures are real money. Real money incomes measure household welfare in commercial cultures because households require money to purchase their food, clothing, and housing needs. Financial analysis operates with reasonable efficiency in commercial cultures but has universally failed to measure household welfare when applied to subsistence cultures.

Creating fictitious incomes for peasant households creates huge distortions in policies recommended by economists to increase food production in peasant nations. The failure of economists to recognize the fundamental difference between subsistence and commercial labor norms has largely contributed to the continual failure of policies that economists recommend to initiate economic development. Economic development must begin with producing assured food surpluses in all crop years in order to feed full-time wage laborers living in cities. The failure of their policies is most obvious in sub-Saharan Africa and in many Latin American nations.

Increasing food production requires different policies from those recommended by economists. As the term political economy indicates, political policies precede economic policies. Unfortunately, most economists are poorly prepared to recommend political policies because their training is financial and they are indoctrinated to believe that money incomes are the universal way of measuring household welfare.


The famines that occurred in the last twenty years of the twentieth century were due to war. Peacetime famines have been avoided by food gifts to households in affected peasant societies. Peacetime famine conditions will continue to recur in peasant societies until central governments enforce a change in land tenure from communal to freehold so that money taxes can be collected on agricultural land. In freehold tenure, households that practice the subsistence compromise and fail to pay money taxes can be evicted and forced to become supervised, paid agricultural laborers who can produce assured food surpluses.

SEE ALSO Food Crisis; Peasantry; Subsistence Agriculture


Seavoy, Ronald E. 1986. Famine in Peasant Societies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Seavoy, Ronald E. 1989. Famine in East Africa: Food Production and Food Policies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Seavoy, Ronald E. 2000. Subsistence and Economic Development. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Ronald E. Seavoy

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Famine is widespread hunger and starvation. A region struck with famine experiences acute shortages of food, massive loss of lives, social disruption, and economic chaos. Images of starving mothers and children with emaciated eyes and swollen bellies during recent crises in Ethiopia and Somalia have brought international attention to the problem of famine. Other well-known famines include the great Irish potato famines of the 1850s that drove millions of immigrants to America, and a Russian famine during Stalin's agricultural revolution that killed 20 million people in the 1930s. The worst recorded famine in recent history occurred in China between 1958 and 1961, when 2330 million people died as a result of the failed agricultural program, "the great leap forward."

Even though we may think of these tragedies as single, isolated events, famine, and chronic hunger continue to be serious problems. Between 18 and 20 million people, three-quarters of them children, die each year of starvation or diseases caused by malnourishment. How can this be? Environmental problems like overpopulation, scarce resources, and natural disasters affect people's ability to produce food. Political and economic problems like unequal distribution of wealth, delayed or insufficient action by local governments, and imbalanced trade relationships between countries affect people's ability to buy food when they cannot produce it.

Perhaps the most common explanation for famine is overpopulation. The world's population, now more than 6.2 billion people, grows by 250,000 people every day. It seems impossible that the natural world could support such rapid growth. Indeed, the pressures of rapid growth have had a devastating impact on the environment in many places. Land that once fed one family must now feed 10 families and resulting over-use harms the quality of the land. The world's deserts are rapidly expanding as people destroy fragile topsoil by poor farming techniques, clearing vegetation, and overgrazing .

Although the demands of population growth and industrialization are straining our environment, we have yet to exceed the limits of growth. Since the 1800s some have predicted that humans, like rabbits living without predators, would foolishly reproduce far beyond the carrying capacity of their environment and then die in masses from lack of food. This argument assumes that the supply of food will remain the same as populations grow, but as populations have grown, people have learned to grow more food. World food production increased two-and-a-half times between 1950 and 1980. Alter World War II, agriculture specialists caused a "green revolution," developing new crops and farming techniques that radically increased food production per acre. Farmers began to use special hybrid crop strains, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and advanced irrigation systems. Today, there is more than enough food available to feed everyone. In fact, the United States government spends billions of dollars every year to store excess grain and to keep farmers from farming portions of their land.

Many famines occur in the aftermath of natural disasters like floods and droughts. In times of drought , crops cannot grow because they do not have enough water. In times of flood, excess water washes out fields, destroying crops and disrupting farm activity. These disasters have several effects. First, damaged crops cause food shortages, making nutrients difficult to find and making any food available too expensive for many people. Second, reduced food production means less work for those who rely on temporary farm work for their income. Famines usually affect only the poorest five to ten percent of a country's population. They are most vulnerable because during a crisis wages for the poorest workers go down as food prices go up.

Famine is a problem of distribution as well as production. Environmental, economic, and political factors together determine the supply and distribution of food in a country. Starvation occurs when people lose their ability to obtain food by growing it or by buying it. Often, poor decisions and organizations aggravate environmental factors to cause human suffering. In Bangladesh, floods during the summer of 1974 interfered with rice transplantation, the planting of small rice seedlings in their rice patties. Although the crop was only partly damaged, speculators hoarded rice, and fears of a shortage drove prices beyond the reach of the poorest in Bangladesh. At the same time, disruption of the planting meant lost work for the same people. Even though there was plenty of rice from the previous year's harvest, deaths from starvation rose as the price of rice went up. In December of 1974, when the damaged rice crop was harvested, the country found that its crop had been only partly ruined. Starvation resulted not from a shortage of rice, but from price speculation. The famine could have been avoided completely if the government had responded more quickly, acting to stabilize the rice market and to provide relief for famine victims.

In other cases, governments have acted to avoid famine. The Indian state of Maharahtra offset affects of a severe drought in 1972 by hiring the poorest people to work on public projects like roads and wells . This provided a service for the country and at the same time diverted a catastrophe by providing an income for the most vulnerable citizens to compete with the rest of the population for a limited food supply. At the same time, the countries of Mali, Niger, Chad, and Senegal experienced severe famine, even though the average amount of food per person in these countries was the same as in Maharahtra. The difference, it would seem, lies in the actions and intentions of the governments. The Indian government provides a powerful example. Although India lags behind many countries in economic development, education, and health care, the Indians have managed to avert serious famine since 1943, four years before they gained independence from the British.

Responsibility for hunger and famine rests also with the international community. Countries and peoples of the world are increasingly interconnected, continuously exchanging goods and services. We are more and more dependent on one another for success and for survival. The world economic and political order dramatically favors the wealthiest industrialized countries, in Europe and North America. Following patterns established during colonial expansion, Third World nations often produce raw materials, unfinished goods, and basic commodities like bananas and coffee that they sell to the First World at low prices. The First World nations then manufacture and refine these products and sell back information and technology, like machinery and computers for a very high price. As a result, the wealthiest nations amass capital and resources, and enjoy very high standards of living, while the poorest nations retain huge national debts and struggle to remain stable economically and politically. The word's poorest countries, then, are left vulnerable to all of the conditions which cause famine, economic hardship, political instability, overpopulation, and over-taxed resources.

Furthermore, large colonial powers often left behind unjust political and social hierarchies that are very good at extracting resources and sending them north, but not as good at promoting social justice and human welfare. Many Third World countries are dominated by a small ruling class who own most of the land, control industry, and run the government. Since the poorest people, who suffer most in famines, have little power to influence government policies and manage the countries economy, their needs are often unheard and unmet. A government that rules without democratic support of its people has less incentive to protect those who would suffer in times of famine. In addition, the poorest often do not benefit from the industry and agriculture that does exist in a developing country. Large corporate farms often force small subsistence farmers off of their land. These farmers must then work for day wages, producing food for export, while local people go without adequate nutrition.

Economic and social arrangements, as well as environmental conditions, are central to the problems of hunger and starvation. Famine is much less likely to occur in countries that are concerned with issues of social justice. In the same way, famine is much less likely to occur in a world that is concerned with issues of social justice. Environmental pressures of population growth and human use of natural resources will continue to be issues of great concern. Natural disasters like droughts and floods will continue to occur. The best response to the problem of famine lies in working to better manage environmental resources and crisis situations and to change political and economic structures that cause people to go without food.

[John Cunningham ]



Lappe, F. M. World Hunger: Twelve Myths New York: Grove Press, 1986.


Sen, A. "Economics of Life and Death." Scientific American 268 (May 1993): 4047.

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Every historical era has suffered the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse mentioned in the Bible famine, death, war, and the plague. Famine in the modern era is thought to be caused as much by other factors than food shortages due to nature. Famine involves a severe eruption of acute starvation and a sharp increase of mortality affecting a large segment of the population. Chronic hunger is characterized by sustained nutritional deprivation on a persistent basis.

Famine and chronic hunger are part of a food-availabilityfood-deprivation continuum. Either may be due to (1) forces of nature such as drought, plant diseases, or flood; (2) human conditions resulting from war, civil strife, genocide, market forces (e.g., hoarding, graft, and profiteering), and other exploitive governmental or corporation policies (where the goal is profit at all cost); or (3) both. Famine may be an intentional tactic or unintentional outcome of human behavior.

Estimates of excess death (i.e., actual famine mortality minus pre-famine mortality) due to hunger and hunger-related diseases of children, women, and men is around 40 million per year. During the famine of China, from 1958 to 1961, between 23 and 30 million people died. However, the greatest proportion of people diedone-eighth of their population, or 1 million people during the Irish "Great Hunger" of 1845 to 1852. Dysentery, typhus, typhoid fever, and other infectious diseases, more so than literal starvation, were the primary causes of death.

Thomas Robert Malthus, an eighteenth-century British economist, theorized that famine, along with war and disease, was an adaptation to the imbalance between available food and population size. The neo-Malthusian view remains influential. Preventive policies would include increased food production capitalizing on technology (including improved fertilizers and transgenic food), and population growth restraints. Other conservationists and economists argue that high food production cannot be, and is not, maintained because a growing share of land and water used for crop production is unsustainable due to the various forms of pollution, increasing population growth in at-risk geographic areas, and global warming.

The Nobel Prizewinning economist Amartya Sen's entitlement theory sees famine resulting not from the unavailability of food, but the lack of means to purchase or otherwise obtain food. Prevention is rooted in (1) global, coordinated public policies that control exploitive local and global market forces and that provide import of surplus food and (2) entitlements that allow obtaining food such as free food at distribution centers, money, jobs, education, and health care in at-risk geographic areas such as states in sub-Sahara Africa, South America, and Asia.

Other scholars, like Jenny Edkins, lecturer in international politics at the University of Wales, see famine as essentially resulting from modernity, including poverty, violence, and the bio-politicizing of famine. These scholars would re-politicize the issue of famine with the goal of preventing violence, war, genocide, and enhanced human rights. For example, the genocidal policies of the Stalinist regime resulted in the Ukraine famine during 1932 and 1933 that caused the deaths of some 6 to 7 million people. Periodic genocidal wars and drought combine to produce famine and chronic starvation in many of the countries of southern Africa.

In the twenty-first century, food security is declared a basic human right by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is defined as access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food is a basic need. If unmet by institutions and structures designed to provide for the general welfare, then food insecurity is a threat to any social system. Can global food security be attained? The crucial issue is whether the wealthy nations and the political and economic forces involved in the globalization process have the will to implement the preventive policies suggested by social scientists and humanitarians.

Specific, international measures to increase food security include a structure (especially legislation with enforcement powers) that guarantees a livable wage which enables workers to live healthily and well. Other measures include maintaining environmental security, implementing strong human rights laws, implementing safe and sane food technologies with special reference to transgenic foods, providing an international food distribution system to at-risk locations and people, instituting a famine early warning system such as the one developed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and encouraging democratic and open societies with special emphasis on a free and inquiring press, educated public, and adversarial politics.

See also: Disasters


Brown, Lester R., Michael Renner, and Brian Halwell. Vital Signs 2000. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

Daily, Gretchen, et al. "Global Food Supply: Food Production, Population Growth, and the Environment." Science 281, no. 5381 (1998):12911292.

Dreze, Jean, and Amartya Sen, eds. Hunger and Public Action. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Edkins, Jenny. Whose Hunger?: Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Gráda, Cormac Ó. Black '47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Gráda, Cormac Ó. "Was the Great Famine Just Like Modern Famines?" In Helen O'Neill and John Toye eds., A World without Famine: New Approaches to Aid and Development. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Guerinot, Mary Lou. "Plant Biology Enhanced: The Green Revolution Strikes Gold." Science 287, no. 5451 (2000):241243.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1968.

O'Neill, Helen, and John Toye, eds. "Introduction." A World without Famine: New Approaches to Aid and Development. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Internet Resources

Leidenfrost, Nancy B. "Definitions of Food Security Extension Service." In the Brown University [web site]. Available from www.brown.edu/Departments/World_Hunger_Program/hungerweb/intro/food_security.html.

Sen, Amartya. "Public Action to Remedy Hunger." In the Brown University [web site]. Available from www.thp.org/reports/sen/sen890.htm#n1.

"Ukranian Famine: U.S. Library of Congress Soviet Online Exhibit, 2001. " In the Soviet Archives Exhibit [web site]. Available from www.ibiblio.org/expo/soviet.exhibit/famine.html.


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Famine is the culmination of a long process, typically covering two or more crop seasons, in which increasing numbers of people lose their access to food. Although early detection seems highly possible, the origins of famine are unclear, and early response is therefore rare. Famine is distinct from generalized chronic hunger, malnutrition , or undernourishment. It is a more dramatic and exceptional event that triggers institutional responses.

Famine has been defined as the regional failure of food production or distribution systems leading to sharply increased mortality due to starvation and associated disease. Excessive mortalitydeaths that would not have occurred otherwiseare a core feature of famine. Other important determinants of famine are regional issues, shifting market demand for different foods, and changes in the food aggregate supply. Famine also leads to extensive social disintegration, hoarding of food, smuggling, black-market food sales, and crime. Many people in distress sell their only assets such as their jewelry, animals, or land. Families often divide in search of work or succorwives may even be cast adrift and children sold. Out-migration also increases as people abandon their lands, homes, and communities in desperation.

Famine is generally accompanied by a recession in the entire rural economy, affecting production and exchange, employment, and the income of farm and nonfarm households alike. Landless laborers, artisans, and traders are among those most vulnerable to famine because of shrinking demand for their labor, goods, and services. Fishermen and those who raise livestock are also vulnerable because they rely on the exchange of meat and marine products to obtain the cheaper grain calories they require. Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prizewinning economist, has argued that famine is more than just severe food shortage. His economic theory of famine is based on evidence that even with relatively small changes in the food supply, famine has been caused by other economic factors. Each person has an economic "entitlement," a range of different goods that can be acquired with an individual's resources, according to Sen. People starve when their entitlement is not enough to procure the food required to survive. How much the food is available to people depends on income distribution and the ability to provide services that others are willing to pay for. However, this does not mean that the supply of food is irrelevant in the cause of famine. A scarcity of food will usually increase the competition among people to acquire it, and thereby increase its price. For those already close to the margin of hunger and poverty, this may drive them to the point of starvation.

The twentieth century saw four major famines: the great Bengal famine in colonial India under British rule in 19431944, in which more than three million people died; the famine in several provinces of Ethiopia between 1972 and 1974; the drought and famine in the Sahel region of Africa between 1968 and 1973; and the famine in Bangladesh in 1974 (the same region as the 19431944 famine, but now under a different government). It has been argued that the only way certain parts of the world can become less prone to famine is through economic development.

see also Disaster Relief Organizations; Emergency Nutrition Network; Food Aid for Development; Food and Agriculture Organization; Food Insecurity; Hunger; Malnutrition; United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Nilesh Chatterjee


Field, John O. (1993). The Challenge of Famine: Recent Experience, Lessons Learned. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press.

Sen, Amartya (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Young, E. M. (1997). World Hunger. London: Routledge.

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famine may be defined as the occurrence of serious food shortages resulting in significant rises in the death rate. Mortality during famines was rarely caused solely by starvation but from related diseases like dysentery, typhoid, and typhus. Hence deaths from food shortages might occur some time after initial harvest failures. Increased migration out of famine-hit areas to towns and cities could also raise death rates since rural refugees often encountered diseases to which they had no immunity, or transmitted epidemics to urban dwellers.

Vulnerability to famine depended on more than the local harvest. Also important were the amount of food imported, the efficiency of distribution and relief systems, and the ability to purchase supplies in the market-place. Famines were more likely to occur when harvests failed successively, when population pressure on resources was extensive, and where populations were over-reliant on one particular crop. Pastoral areas of Britain, often located in more remote upland areas on poorer soils, where animal husbandry took precedence over grain production, were usually more vulnerable to famine than grain-producing regions.

What has been described as the worst famine in England in the last millennium occurred in 1315–18, after a century of rapid population growth, when a succession of disastrous harvests killed between 10 and 15 per cent of the population. Lesser famines had also occurred in 1293–5 and 1310–12. After the arrival of plague in 1348, however, England's agrarian economy was more than able to feed its much reduced population, and famine mortality disappeared until population growth accelerated again in the 16th cent.

When famine returned, the worst crisis took place in 1594–8 with another less serious in 1623–4. Even these were concentrated in England's more remote northern upland pastoral areas, notably Cumberland, and most of the country was unaffected. Famines disappeared from England after 1640. Their end was facilitated by improved agricultural productivity, a well-developed marketing network, and the introduction of England's poor law (1601) which alleviated distress when harvests failed.

England's Celtic neighbours experienced more severe famines for far longer. Scotland suffered spectacularly in 1623–4 when death rates in some areas increased eightfold. Increased specialization on pastoral agriculture in the 18th cent. seems to have increased vulnerability. Scotland suffered severe famine mortality in the 1690s which may have killed 15 per cent of its population, lowland areas were hit in 1740–1, and parts of the Highlands suffered famine late into that century. Famines were experienced in Ireland in the 1620s, 1640s, and 1650s. As its textile industry declined and the diet of its poor increasingly became dominated by the potato, Ireland became more rather than less famine-prone. Serious mortality occurred in 1727–9 and the 1740–1 scourge killed some quarter of a million people. Famines occurred again in 1744–6, 1800–1, and 1817–19 but these were dwarfed by the last Great Famine in Ireland, caused by potato blight which ravaged the staple potato crop for four successive years, 1845–8. Recent estimates put the number of deaths attributable to this disaster at 1 million.

Jeremy Boulton

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fam·ine / ˈfamən/ • n. extreme scarcity of food. the famine of 1921–22. ∎  a shortage: the cotton famine of the 1860s. ∎ archaic hunger.