Here is a look at famine, a severe and prolonged hunger in a significant portion of a region or country’s population that results in malnutrition and death by starvation and disease.
To assess a country’s food security, the United Nations uses the five-phase scale known as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).
Famine can stem from natural causes such as droughts, floods, earthquakes, insect plagues and plant disease. It can also stem from man-made causes such as wars, civil disturbances, sieges and deliberate crop destruction.
Famine results from a triple failure of food production, access to food and response.
Undernutrition – The outcome of prolonged insufficient food intake and/or low absorption of food consumed. This generally applies to energy levels, but may also relate to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Undernourishment or Chronic Hunger – The status of persons when food consumption regularly provides less than their minimum energy requirements. The average minimum energy requirement per person is about 1,800 kilocalories (kilocalories are commonly referred to as calories) per day. (The exact requirement is determined by a person’s age, body size, activity level and physiological conditions such as illness, infection, pregnancy and lactation).
Malnutrition – A general term for a range of circumstances that inhibit good health, caused by insufficient or unbalanced food intake or from poor absorption of food consumed. The term refers to both undernutrition (food deprivation) and overnutrition (excessive food consumption with regards to energy requirements).
Food security – Exists when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs for an active and healthy life.
Food insecurity – Exists when people lack access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food, and therefore do not consume enough for an active and healthy life. The situation may result from unavailability of food, inadequate purchasing power, or inappropriate food distribution at the household level.
Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) Acute Food Insecurity Phases
Phase 1: None/Minimal
Phase 2: Stressed
Phase 3: Acute Food and Livelihood Crisis
Phase 4: Humanitarian Emergency
Phase 5: Famine/Humanitarian Catastrophe
Number and Prevalence (%) of Undernourished in the World
(Source: The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)
1990-1992 – 1,010.6 million (18.6% of the world)
2005 – 825.6 million (12.6% of the world)
2010 – 668.2 million (9.6% of the world)
2015 – 653.3 million (8.9% of the world)
2016 – 657.6 million (8.8% of the world)
2017 – 653.2 million (8.7% of the world)
2018 – 678.1 million (8.9% of the world)
2019 (projected) – 687.8 million (8.9% of the world)
Percentage of the Population in a Condition of Undernourishment
1990-1992 – 27.6% of Africa, 23.6% of Asia, 14.7% of Latin America and the Caribbean, 15.7% of Oceania
2005 – 21.0% of Africa, 14.4% of Asia, 8.7% of Latin America and the Caribbean, 5.6% of Oceania
2010 – 18.9% of Africa, 10.1% of Asia, 6.7% of Latin America and the Caribbean, 5.4% of Oceania
2015 – 18.3% of Africa, 8.8% of Asia, 6.2% of Latin America and the Caribbean, 5.5% of Oceania
2016 – 18.5% of Africa, 8.5% of Asia, 6.7% of Latin America and the Caribbean, 5.9% of Oceania
2017 – 18.6% of Africa, 8.2% of Asia, 6.8% of Latin America and the Caribbean, 6.0% of Oceania
2018 – 18.6% of Africa, 8.4% of Asia, 7.3% of Latin America and the Caribbean, 5.7% of Oceania
2019 (projected) – 19.1% of Africa, 8.3% of Asia, 7.4% of Latin America and the Caribbean, 5.8% of Oceania
Timeline of Selected Famines (one million or more deaths, 1900-present)
1921-1922 – Famine in the Soviet Union, results in 9 million deaths.
1927 – In China (northwest), 3 to 6 million perish.
1929 – Famine in China (Hunan Province), results in 2 million deaths.
1932-1933 – In the Soviet Union (Ukraine), 7 to 8 million people die.
1930-1933 – In the Soviet Union (Kazakhstan), more than 1.5 million people die.
1943 – Famine in China (Henan), results in 3 to 5 million deaths.
1943 – In India (Bengal), 2.1-3 million perish.
1943-1945 – In Indonesia (Java), 2.4 million people die.
1946-1947 – In the Soviet Union, 2 million people die.
1959-1961 – Famine in China results in 15-30 million deaths.
1968-1970 – Civil war in Nigeria leads to famine, an estimated 1 million people die.
1974 – In Bangladesh, 1.5 million perish.
1975-1979 – Famine in Cambodia results in 1.5-2 million deaths.
1984-1985 – Ethiopian famine, affects more than 8 million people and results in approximately 1 million deaths.
1991-1993 – Famine in Somalia, after the government’s fall and civil war, affects more than 3 million people.
1995-1999 – North Korean famine results in an estimated 2.5 million deaths.
1998-2007 – War in the Democratic Republic of Congo leads to a humanitarian crisis. An estimated 5.4 million people die due to fighting, famine and disease.