Famine (Latin fames,"hunger"), severe shortage of food, generally affecting a widespread area and large numbers of people. Natural causes include droughts, floods, earthquakes, insect plagues, and plant disease. Human causes include wars, civil disturbances, sieges, and deliberate crop destruction. Widespread, chronic hunger and malnutrition may result from severe poverty, inefficient food distribution, or population increases disproportionate to the food-producing or procuring capacity of people in a region.
The immediate consequences of famine are weight loss in adults and retarded growth in children. Malnutrition, especially protein-energy malnutrition, then increases throughout the affected population and mortality rates rise, usually beginning with the old and the young. These deaths are due not only to starvation, but also to diminished ability to fight infection. In the past, epidemics of typhus and plague caused famines that resulted in high mortality rates. In recent times, diarrhoea, measles, and tuberculosis have taken a high toll in famine areas.
One of the most dramatic, large-scale sociological consequences of famine is population migration. For example, about 1.6 million people emigrated from Ireland—chiefly to the United States—to escape Ireland's potato famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1847. Modern migrations have often been from rural areas to cities. The population of Nouakshott, the capital city of Mauritania, quadrupled in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely as a result of famine in the Sahel (sub-Saharan) region of Africa.
Acute shortages of foodstuffs have existed in isolated areas periodically since ancient times. Historical records, however, cover only a few thousand years, and estimates of the extent of famines have been approximate. This is true even of famines that occurred during the 20th century.
Nevertheless, the catastrophic nature of major famines is unquestioned. Most researchers list about 400 such famines in recorded history. Populations in Asia have been decimated repeatedly by starvation as a result of drought. An estimated 10 million people died in a drought-induced famine in India from 1769 to 1770, and a similar number died in the 1877-1878 famine in northern China. Warfare has been another major cause of famines in these regions. In 1943 an estimated 3 to 5 million people died in China's Henan Province as a result of starvation caused by World War II (1939-1945).
In the 20th century the Sahel region of Africa has been struck by famine several times. North and South America have been relatively free of large-scale famines. Europe has suffered only occasionally, although during World War II hundreds of thousands died from starvation.
The human body can adapt fairly well to a reduction in the intake of nutrients. Cutting the intake by half will reduce body weight by about one-fourth, but a person may subsist at this level for some time without experiencing adverse health effects. Any additional drop in intake, however, can be dangerous. Starvation is only one of the possible results; equally serious are diseases that successfully attack an undernourished body.
Long-term effects are also serious. Adults can generally recover successfully from a period of famine, but children may suffer permanent physical and mental damage from undernourishment at a vulnerable time of rapid growth.
III. Relief Organisations
Relief organisations for the aid of famine victims are fairly recent inventions. The International Red Cross, founded in Switzerland in 1864, mobilises relief efforts both within and between countries. Religious and other private agencies also provide relief, and aid is provided by many countries including the United States, Canada, and European nations.
After World War II the shortcomings of these individual programs' abilities to alleviate starvation became obvious. The establishment of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in 1945 was followed by the creation of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to co-ordinate international famine relief efforts. Other United Nations agencies assist the FAO in its attempts to prevent disasters caused by inadequate food supplies.
Predictions of chronic conditions that may result in famine have not always been correct. In the 1930s and 1940s predictions indicated that China would be plagued by famine by the late 20th century. In the 1950s and 1960s the Indian subcontinent was singled out as a region losing the ability to feed its burgeoning population. Yet China has succeeded in feeding its people; national attention to equity, agriculture, and birth control have significantly reduced the threat of famine. In India, the so-called green revolution, characterised by the introduction of high-yield grain crops and increased use of fertilisers and irrigation, has greatly increased food production. Although malnutrition remains prevalent, India is now self-sufficient in cereal production.
Major famines of the late 20th century have occurred in Africa. Contributing factors have included drought, desertification (the spread of deserts), poor soils and growing conditions not suited to advanced agricultural techniques, rapid increases in population, and inadequate attention to food production by some governments. Famine in Africa has recently been most severe where wars or civil unrest exist, as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire), Chad, the southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Somalia.
In the early 1990s the world produced more than enough food for the 5.3 billion people on the planet, and it was probably capable of growing enough to feed the significantly larger population projected for the first part of the 21st century. To eliminate famine and reduce malnutrition, however, attention needs to focus not only on food production but also on food distribution, consumption, and family planning. Many countries are establishing nutrition surveillance systems designed to predict famines before they occur; through such efforts and early government action, future deaths due to starvation may be prevented.