Course 1 What causes famines?

Humanity has
No control over

You are wrong!

Famines are mostly man-made. Their main causes are war, conflict, and political failure.

You might think that most famines are caused by natural disasters, such as frost, drought, or floods. While they can surely make things worse, most famines happen through a combination of man-made factors: political failure, war and conflict, inequality, economic policies, and insufficient relief measures. Every famine is unique and complicated, with multiple causes coming together in a perfect storm.

Usually, it is not that there is not enough food. It is that some people just cannot get it because of how others have set things up. So, humans play a big part in causing famines, but they can also prevent or end them.

Even though famines cannot be explained in a simple way, we often see them pictured in the same type of images—mothers and kids struggling. These images make us feel for them. But have you ever wondered what happened before those images were created?
Infectious diseases

During famines, people often have to move to crowded and unsanitary places, such as poorhouses. They have less access to doctors and medicine. This causes infectious diseases to spread quickly, increasing death and suffering.

James Mahoney
Bridget O'Donnel and her Children (1849)
Published in The Illustrated London News

In the 19th century, Ireland, Flanders, and the Netherlands got hit by a disease that destroyed the potato crop. In Ireland this caused a big problem because its farmers relied on potatoes for food and had to sell any other crops to pay the rent. Many starved or died from infectious diseases, often in crowded poorhouses, after leaving their homes to find aid or having been evicted by their landlords. Mahoney illustrated a newspaper article about the Irish ‘Great Famine’ (1845–52) with this famous picture.

War, inflation & blockades

Wars can cause famine in various ways. They disrupt the production of food, which can lead to food shortages. During conflicts, food supplies can be cut off due to blockades, sieges, or restrictions on movement. Additionally, war often triggers economic instability, leading to inflation and skyrocketing food prices.

Kathe Kollwitz
Bread! (1924)
©Saint Louis Art Museum
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Schield

Hunger and food insecurity in Germany (1914–24) were not the result of the Allied sea blockade alone. A combination of factors made life hard and food scarce: trade reduction, smaller potato harvests, the high costs of the war, a drop in employment, extreme inflation, and political chaos after the war. To raise money for hungry people in Germany after World War I, Kollwitz created this lithograph.

Voula Papaioannou
Breast feeding at milk distribution centre (Athens, 1942–43)
© Benaki Museum Photographic Archives

The famine in Greece (1941–1944) during World War II is usually entirely blamed on German soldiers stealing resources, which indeed played a big part. But there were other causes too, like inflation and communication problems between different areas controlled by Bulgaria, Italy, and Germany. Plus, while the Allied blockade of Greece prevented resources from reaching the wrong people, it also resulted in even less food for the Greek population.

Governmental Mismanagement

When governments do not act quickly or effectively to address food shortages, these situations can turn into famines.

Robert Wilhelm Ekman
Beggar Family on the Road (1860)
©Finnish National Gallery

The Finnish ‘Great Hunger Years’ (1866–68) are often blamed on harsh weather and frost. But before that, there had already been food and money shortages for a while. During the worst part of the famine, the government did not provide enough relief or food to those in need. This painting by Ekman is often shown to depict the crisis, even though he made it several years before the famine’s worst years. This shows that Finnish rural families were facing tough times even before the crops failed.

Totalitarian Regimes

The worst famines of the 20th century, including the deadliest famine in China (1959-1961) with an estimated 30 million victims, happened under totalitarian rule. These regimes cause famines more often because they have total control over their population, enforce harsh rules, suppress people’s freedom, engage in corrupt practices, isolate themselves internationally, and operate without transparency.

Viktor Tsymbal
The Year 1933 (1936)
©National Museum of the Holodomor Genocide, Kyiv

Віктор Цимбал
Рік 1933 (1936)
© Національний музей Голодомору
геноциду, Київ

As a result of economic policies and agricultural reforms implemented by Joseph Stalin, famine plagued the Soviet Union in 1932. In late 1932 and early 1933, policies specifically directed at Soviet Ukraine exacerbated famine there to catastrophic degrees. As a result, millions of people died. The famine, known as the Holodomor, is recognised as a genocide by many countries, including Ukraine, Canada, and the US, as well as the European Parliament. Tsymbal’s painting shows a deceased mother and child going to heaven during the famine in Soviet Ukraine (1932–33).

In conclusion

Most modern famines happen due to a mix of different, man-made reasons.

While all the above pictures show mothers and their children in distress, the causes behind their suffering vary. Infectious diseases, inaccessible aid, insufficient relief efforts, extreme weather, inflation, and blockade warfare are just some of the drivers that lead to famine and excess deaths. Food insecurity and famine are most likely to happen where there are conflicts, wars, inequality, oppressive governments, and totalitarian regimes.

In most cases, famine is the result of larger conflict, such as war. Sometimes, famine and starvation are created as a weapon to make people weaker or decrease their numbers on purpose. For example, during the Holocaust, the Nazis implemented starvation as part of its policies of genocide. Another example is the Hunger Plan in World War II when Nazi Germany planned to starve millions of people in the occupied Soviet territories.

What’s this like today?

Nowadays, the main causes of famine are war, conflict, climate change, and unusual weather. These lead to economic instability, displacement, the disruption of food production, unfair food distribution, and inaccessibility of humanitarian aid. In 2023, around 345 million people faced high levels of food insecurity. Out of these, more than 40 million people were very close to famine and starvation.

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