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.



Eight-month-old Aymad recovers at a stabilization center for malnourished children ata health clinic in a drought-affected area, on May 18, 2017 in the Somali Region, Ethiopia.

Eight-month-old Aymad recovers at a stabilization center for malnourished children ata health clinic in a drought-affected area, on May 18, 2017 in the Somali Region, Ethiopia.
(Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor)

In many parts of the world colonial powers often left behind unjust political and social hierarchies that were very good at extracting resources and sending them north, but not as good at promoting social justice and human welfare. Developing nations are often dominated by a small ruling class, who own most of the land, control industry, and run the government. Because the poorest people, who suffer most in famines, have little power to influence government policies and manage the country's 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 their land. These farmers must then work for day wages, producing food for export, while local people go without adequate nutrition.

Effects on public health

Even though these seem to be isolated events, famine and chronic hunger continue to be serious problems. Between 18 and 20 million people, three-fourths of them children, die each year of starvation or diseases caused by malnourishment. Environmental problems such as overpopulation, scarce resources, and natural disasters affect people's ability to produce food. Political and economic problems such as 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, more than 7 billion people as of 2012, grows by about 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 ten families and the 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.

Effect on the environment

Although the demands of population growth and industrialization are straining the environment, the world has 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. After World War II, agriculture specialists initiated the 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. These innovations improved the ability of farmers to produce enough food for the population.

Many famines occur in the aftermath of natural disasters such as 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 available food 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. This subset of the population is most vulnerable because during a crisis wages for the poorest workers go down as food prices go up.

Public health role and response

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. 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.


In many cases governments have acted to avoid famine. The Indian state of Maharashtra offset effects of a severe drought in 1972 by hiring the poorest people to work on public projects, such as roads and wells. This relief system provided a service for the country, and at the same time it avoided 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 Maharashtra. 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. They are increasingly dependent on one another for success and for survival. The world economic and political order dramatically favors the wealthiest industrialized countries, Europe and North America. Following patterns established during colonial expansion, developing nations are characterized as raw material producing, relying on unfinished goods and basic commodities as their economic foundation, such as bananas and coffee that they sell to the industrialized countries at low prices. The industrialized nations then manufacture and refine these products and sell back information and technology, such as 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, whereas the poorest nations retain huge national debts and struggle to remain stable economically and politically. The world's poorest countries, then, are left vulnerable to all of the conditions that cause famine, economic hardship, political instability, overpopulation, and over-taxed resources.

See also Drought ; Food insecurity and undernutrition ; Horn of Africa drought and famine .



Devereux, Stephen. The New Famines: Why Famines Persist in an Era of Globalization. Routledge Studies in Development Economics, 52. London: Routledge, 2007.

Donnelly, James S. The Great Irish Potato Famine. Stroud: Sutton, 2007.

Kannan, Seshadri. Food, Famine and Fertilizers. New Delhi: APH, 2008.

Nabhan, Gary Paul. Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine. Washington, DC: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2009.

O'Grada, Cormac. Famine: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.


Pan American Health Organization, 525 23rd St. NW, Washington, DC, 20037, (202) 974-3000, Fax: (202) 974-3663, www.paho.org .

World Health Organization, Avenue Appia 20, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland, 22 41 791 21 11, Fax: 22 41 791 31 11, info@who.int, http://www.who.int .

John Cunningham
Alyson C. Heimer, MA

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.