Famine is the state of extreme food scarcity within a geographical area. It’s basically the next level of food shortage. Acute food shortage within a family is not famine – the situation must affect a large population. Fortunately, famine has never been nationwide or continent-wide. It’s always local or regional, unless the country isn’t as vast as China, India, Brazil or Russia.

A malnourished, famine-affected child. Image credit: Flickr
A malnourished, famine-affected child. Image credit: Flickr

Famine-affected regions usually witness hunger-related deaths and diseases. By the time a famine is declared by the government or The United Nations, major damage has already been done in terms of loss of lives.

A government officially declares famine if the region has:

  • At least 20 percent of the population not having access to food worth at least 2,100 kilocalories per day
  • More than 30 percent of the population is suffering from serious malnutrition
  • Two deaths for every 10,000 adults or four deaths for every 10,000 children
  • No livestock population

Famine doesn’t mean a shortage of particular food items. It’s basically scarcity of all kinds of food at large. However, if grains or starchy roots (sweet potatoes, potatoes, yams, etc.) are not in shortage, major famines are unlikely even if other food items are in short supply.


Famine causes could be natural or artificial. Natural reasons include drought (rainfall deficiency), flood and excessive rains, typhoons, excessively cold weather, plant diseases and tidal waves. These primarily contribute to reduced food production and destroyed stocks. Continuous rain majorly decrease grain crop harvests.

Artificial causes are usually political: warfare, revolutions (involving peasants and authorities), growing grain or food stock destruction, etc. Wartimes lead to diminishing manpower, fertilizers or equipment, thereby decreasing agricultural yields and production. At times, demographic and economic situations such as poverty and unemployment could also be reasons.


Famine-affected areas are replete with skeletonized, utterly inactive individuals. The poor are the most affected during a famine. Beggars become a common sight and wagons can be seen carrying human and animal corpses. Wandering crowds in search of edible material, riots, etc. are also widespread. During the 1920-21 famine in China, people were pushed to eating fuller’s earth, sawdust, cotton seeds, corncobs, elm bark, etc. to satiate their hunger. Also, some people are too weak to step out of their houses, eventually dying within their abodes.

Food and Diseases

Generally, famine-affected people eat anything that’s even close to being edible. Eating cats, dogs, birds, field mice, tree barks, horse manure, etc. is not unheard of during famine. Farmers eat seeds meant for cultivation. And due to this scarcity of essential commodities, robbery coupled with violence, burglary, and murders increase. Diseases spread because the low and/or bad food intake results in reduced immunity. Famine-related diseases include malaria, tuberculosis, influenza, cholera, smallpox, to name a few. Polluted water, crowding unsanitary refugee camps, etc. are other causes for the diseases.

Decreasing Population

Famine not just ups the death rate, but birth rates are reduced as well, thereby slowing population growth. This is because adults are not healthy enough to indulge in sexual activity and bear a child.


There are economic damages as well. Employment rate goes down, and those employed are offered wages or salaries not in proportion to rising food prices. To make up for the income deficit, people often sell their household furnishings, clothing, house timbers and other possessions. Some even sell their kids, and several men become slaves.

Several people flee the place not just to escape from the misery but also seek employment. People from the countryside can be found moving to cities, particularly government centers. Once the famine is over, most people return. However, quite a few settle down at the place of employment and make new homes.