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-availability–food-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 died—one-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 Prize–winning 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):1291–1292.

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):241–243.

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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