Famine is a widespread condition in which many people in a country or region are unable to access adequate food supplies. Famines result in malnutrition, starvation, disease, and high death rates.


5 - 8


Geography, Social Studies, Health, Economics, Civics


Refugees on Train to Dacca

Photo: Refugees escape places experiencing famine as they seek food security on the way to Dacca, Bangladesh.

Photograph by Steve Raymer
Photo: Refugees escape places experiencing famine as they seek food security on the way to Dacca, Bangladesh.

Famine is a widespread condition in which a large percentage of people in a country or region have little or no access to adequate food supplies. Many people believe that famines are food shortages caused solely by underproduction. However, in many cases, famine has multiple causes.

A natural disaster, such as a long period of drought, flooding, extreme cold, typhoons, insect infestations, or plant disease, combined with government decisions on how to respond to the disaster, can result in a famine. The famine might be initiated by a natural disaster, and a government's inability or unwillingness to deal with the consequences of that event may magnify the effects. This happened in North Korea in the 1990s when government mismanagement of food supplies and an inequitable rationing policy led to a famine that killed over two million people by some estimates.

Human events also lead to famine. A major human cause of famine is warfare. During war, crops are destroyed, either intentionally or as a result of combat. In addition, supply lines and routes are cut off, and food cannot be distributed or is prevented from being distributed by combatants. Forced starvation for political reasons is another cause of famine. In the Soviet Union of the 1930s, for example, millions of peasants died as a result of leader Joseph Stalin’s agricultural policies, which required that a quota of grain be supplied to the government before any of the grain could be consumed by those who grew it. Anyone caught violating the policy could be executed.

Europe and other developed parts of the world have mostly eliminated famine, though in earlier history, particularly the Middle Ages, some European countries experienced widespread famines that killed thousands, possibly even millions of people. Today, famine is most common in African countries. In 2011, for example, widespread famine began in the African nation of Somalia. More than 250,000 people died as a result. In 2017, the United Nations officially declared a famine in parts of South Sudan, where a civil war had begun in 2013.

A major way to prevent famine is by supporting humanitarian relief efforts. In addition, many groups support the funding of programs to help local communities survive times of drought and other causes of food scarcity.

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Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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