Policy commentary

The Future of Famine

Apr 28, 2008 | Cormac Ó Gráda

Welcome to the RFF Weekly Policy Commentary, which is meant to provide an easy way to learn about important policy issues related to environmental, natural resource, energy, urban, and public health problems.

This week, Cormac Ó Gráda explains how famines have evolved over the past several decades: once the consequence of natural disasters and plagues, today famines are much a function of policy responses to famine, as of the conditions that caused the crisis. Most forecasts suggest that world population, urbanization, and average income will continue to rise. The prospect of resulting cropland losses, rising food prices, and ensuing political instability in the medium term are real.

In the developed world, famines no longer capture headlines like they used to. Billboard images of African infants with distended bellies are less ubiquitous, and the focus of international philanthropy has shifted from disaster relief to more structural issues, especially Third World debt relief, economic development, and democratic accountability. Totalitarian famines of the kind associated with Stalin, Mao, and their latter-day imitators are on the wane. Even in Africa, the most vulnerable of the seven continents, the famines of the past decade or so have been small by historical standards.

Today, probably for the first time in history, only small pockets of the globe remain truly vulnerable to the threat of major famine. So is it almost time to declare famine "history"? No, if the continuing increase in the number of malnourished people is our guide; yes, perhaps, if we focus instead on their declining share of world population, and on the characteristics of famine in the recent past.

Famines are not easy to measure. Excess mortality is one obvious yardstick but aside from being hard to calculate, it is as much a function of policy responses to famine, as of the conditions that caused the crisis.  In the highly-publicized cases of Malawi in 2002 and Niger in 2005 famine deaths were, thankfully, very few; perhaps these are best seen as averted famines.  However, the meaning of the word famine has also evolved over the centuries. In the recent past, it has been used to refer to events and processes that would not qualify as famine in the apocalyptic, historical sense. Some scholars have argued for a broader definition that would embrace a range, extending from endemic malnutrition to excess mortality and its associated diseases. In support of this view, famine represents the upper end of the continuum whose average is hunger. Malnutrition, which 800 to 900 million endure every day, might be seen as slow-burning famine. While the absolute numbers have risen, the proportion of malnourished people in the less-developed world has dropped from 29 percent in 1979-1981 to 20 percent in 1990-1992 and to 17 percent today. Progress has been greatest in the Far East and South Asia, two traditionally famine-prone regions. In contrast, in Sub-Saharan Africa, famine’s chief remaining redoubt, one-third of the population remains malnourished.

Malnutrition and famine are obviously linked. But at present, mass hunger is a far greater challenge to the global community than famine. Perversely, it is much easier to solicit sympathy and funding for once-off disaster relief than for alleviating endemic food shortages. 

Wars exacerbate economic backwardness and vulnerability to famine. It is no surprise that, in the 18 countries most subject to food emergencies since the mid-1980s, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculates that current or past armed conflict has been a major factor in 14 cases. Weather, principally drought, was the chief cause in eight cases, and what the FAO calls "economic problems" in five. One country, Haiti, has been subject to all three.


The improvements visible in most of the world are the result, of course, of rapid rises in food production as well as falling transport costs. At the global level, food output per head has risen about one-third since the early 1960s. It is particularly reassuring to find agricultural output rising faster than population in former famine black-spots as China and India. Only in Sub-Saharan Africa has food output failed to keep pace with population. Since the early 1960s the decline, per capita, has been about 10 percent and, as a consequence, reliance on imported food has grown.

As for predictions about the future of famine, it is worth noting that the prognostications of past students of hunger and famine have rarely got it right. Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich’s doomsday forecast in the late 1960s is a notorious case in point. His forecast of global famine in the 1970s –- "hundreds of millions of people...going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now" –- got it almost exactly wrong.


Changes in the nature of famine, particularly in recent decades, justify tempered optimism about the future. So does the progress of democracy and relative political stability in much of Africa, where their absence often led to famines in the past. But while the recent examples of famine have occurred in the poorest and most fragile of economies, even much stronger countries would be wise to consider the hazards ahead.

Since the turn of the new millennium, hope for the future has been qualified by increasing concern about the implications of climate change, and the prospect of massive emissions of carbon dioxide leading to accelerated global warming. The challenges of growing global population, rising living standards, and increasing urbanization are real, with implications in the medium term for soil productivity, the relative price of food, and perhaps political stability. Even more important, any optimism about "making famine history" must be qualified by the realization that the threat of wars between and within nations is never far away.  The hope for a famine-free world depends on improved governance and on peace. It is as simple –- and as difficult –- as that.



Views expressed are those of the author. RFF does not take institutional positions on legislative or policy questions.

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Further Readings: 


Stephen Devereux. 2007. The New Famines: Why Famines Persist in an Era of Globalization. London: Routledge.

Alex de Waal.   2007. "Deaths in Darfur: keeping ourselves honest." Available at from

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen. 1989. Hunger and Public Action, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cormac Ó Gráda. 2007. 'Making famine history'. Journal of Economic Literature, 45(1): 5-38.

Cormac Ó Gráda. 2008. Famine: A Short History, Princeton: Princeton University Press.