A famine is a widespread scarcity of food, caused by several factors including war, inflation, crop failure, population imbalance, or government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality. Every inhabited continent in the world has experienced a period of famine throughout history. In the 19th and 20th century, it was generally Southeast and South Asia, as well as Eastern and Central Europe that suffered the most deaths from famine. The numbers dying from famine began to fall sharply from the 1970s.
Some countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, continue to have extreme cases of famine. Since 2010, Africa has been the most affected continent in the world. As of 2017, the United Nations has warned some 20 million are at risk in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. Agricultural conditions have been fluctuating more and more due to variations in weather, and the distribution of food has been affected by conflict. Most programmes now direct their aid towards Africa.
According to the United Nations humanitarian criteria, even if there are food shortages with large numbers of people lacking nutrition, a famine is declared only when certain measures of mortality, malnutrition and hunger are met. The criteria are:
- At least 20% of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope
- The prevalence of acute malnutrition in children exceeds 30%
- The death rate exceeds two persons per 10,000 persons per day
The declaration of a famine carries no binding obligations on the UN or member states, but serves to focus global attention on the problem.