The Deadliest Famines In History (2023)

The Deadliest Famines In History (1)
  • Famines have affected every inhabited continent in the world but the frequency and location of the famines have shifted with the times.
  • Famine rates had been decreasing until 2017, when they saw a rise with famines occurring across Africa.
  • Famines can be caused by natural disasters and severe weather changes, political unrest or policy, war, industrialization or any combination of factors.
  • The deadliest famine in history took place in China between 1959 and 1961. This catastrophe has often been referred to as one of the greatest man-made disasters, though regional droughts did play a part.

Famines have existed throughout time all over the world and in varying degrees of severity. Characterized by a lack of sufficient food supply, they can be caused by any number of factors. Everything from inflation to warfare, political unrest, natural disasters or crop disease can spark a famine causing widespread consequences to a region or country’s population. Famines have affected every inhabited continent in the world but the frequency and location of the famines have shifted with the times.

A Brief History And Causes

The Deadliest Famines In History (2)

Though the severity of famines has decreased with modernity, and the most severe ones took place centuries ago, famines are still alarmingly common in our modern world. Thankfully, United Nation's efforts and other forms of aid have helped to reduce death rates when famine does occur, but the consequences of famines are still severe. Often times corrupt governments, wars, and other politics can inhibit aid and exacerbate situations. For this reason, conflict is the main factor in most modern day famines.

Additionally, famine often came about in the 16th, and 17th centuries due, in part, to rudimentary farming techniques. As farming developed and progressed, commercialization increased. Because farmers often lived on land owned by a landlord, necessity created an increase in farm yields. This meant that while formerly a family may have grown only the food they themselves needed, most farms now had surplus crops - whether commercial or industrial. As societies grew and modernized, causes of famines shifted. While improved farming techniques and crop yields staved off some problems, industrialization, government control and warfare brought new concerns to the table. The 20th Century saw famines with exceptionally high casualties. This was due in part to dictatorships and various wars and conflicts which cut off food supplies and set embargoes that limited imports and exports.

(Video) 10 Forgotten Famines That Historians Tried To Hide From The World

Famine rates had steadily been decreasing globally up until 2017. Unfortunately the world has now seen the resurgence of famine, namely in Africa. These have mainly been in northern and eastern Africa, within the countries of Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen and Somalia, where risk of starvation has dramatically spiked. Below is a list of ten of the most deadly famines throughout history, from 1700’s to the cusp of the new millennium.

The Great Chinese Famine 1959-61

The deadliest famine in history took place in China between 1959 and 1961. This catastrophe has often been referred to as one of the greatest man-made disasters, though regional droughts did play a part. The famine was caused by a combination of political and social factors brought about by the People’s Republic of China. These policies, namely the Great Leap Forward which began in 1958, and the people’s communes, created a deadly environment that cost tens of millions of lives. These policies included drastic changes to farming policy and prohibited farm ownership. Additionally, peasants were redirected from agriculture in favour of iron and steel production, reducing farm outputs drastically. All of this lead to a significant reduction in China’s grain production, and a widespread food shortage. While governments reported some 15 million deaths, experts agree that the death toll was significantly higher, with numbers ranging anywhere from 20 to 50 million deaths.

The Deadliest Famines In History (3)

Chinese Famine of 1907 In 1907

Northern China experienced a famine which claimed up to 25 million lives. This famine came about due to extreme rains which hit during growing season and washed away vast numbers of plants and prevented food production. Nearly 40,000 square miles of land was flooded during this time, in the Honan, Kiang-su and Anhui provinces. Roughly 10% of Northern China’s population was lost in this catastrophe.

(Video) The Worst Droughts And Famines In History

Chalisa and South India Famines 1782-84

The Chalisa famine took place in Northern India from 1783 to 1784 and followed a similar famine which had occurred the previous year in South India. Unusually warm conditions swept through India in 1780 and persisted for the next few years, causing a severe draught. With the excess heat and lack of rain, crops and food supplies died out or were unable to grow, quickly causing a food shortage. Over the course of both famines, more than 11 million lives were lost, and populations were drastically depleted, especially in the Delhi territories.

The Deadliest Famines In History (4)

Bengali Famine of 1770

In 1770 Bengal was hit with a devastating famine that wiped out roughly a third of its population. The famine was brought on by extreme draught and crop shortages. The area was governed by the East India Trading Company at the time, and their focus on profit greatly exacerbated the problem. Despite knowledge of the worsen farming conditions, taxes were increased and crops shifted away from rice to the more profitable opium and indigo. This meant that not only were farmers struggling to produce food, but what was available was priced outside of their reach. As a result of this poor management, roughly 10 million people starved to death.

Soviet Famine (Holodomor) 1932-33

The Deadliest Famines In History (5)

In 1932, the Soviet Union, then ruled by Joseph Stalin, saw a man made famine that killed millions in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Northern Caucasus and Volga Regions. All under Soviet rule at the time, these regions saw drastic declines in their populations between 1932 and 1933. The famine struck hardest in the grain producing areas as leaders looked to industrialization instead of agriculture. Crop farming was also prohibited, and food supplies confiscated, causing mass starvation. The details of this famine have been widely disputed and because of this, death tolls are debated. In 2003, the United Nations declared that between 7 and 10 million people died due to starvation or complications thereof, but researchers have since adjusted this estimate to between 3.5 and 7.5 million.

Russian Famine 1921

World War I and the year leading up to it hit Russia hard. Political unrest and civil wars through 1917 lead to a bloody revolution and the start of Soviet rule. Food supplies were confiscated or redirected to Bolshevik soldiers, leaving civilians to do without. This in turn saw a decrease in food production as some chose not to cultivate crops they would not be allowed to eat. While policies were being put into place to ease tensions between peasants and authorities, the Volga basin experienced terrible crop failure. As a result, some 5 million Russians lost their lives.

(Video) Top 30 Worst Famines in History - Timeline

Bengal Famine 1943

The second world war hit Bengal hard, with a number of increasingly devastating factors leading to a widespread famine. The Bengal province was then under British rule, and it was their lack of action that made things much worse. The Bengal economy had relied heavily on agriculture at the time, but productivity staled as the population increased, causing both a shortage of work and food.

The Deadliest Famines In History (6)

Inflation followed swiftly, and left many unable to pay for sufficient food supplies. The government denied any existence of a famine, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill offered little aid. Eventually humanitarian aid and a fruitful harvest helped to lift the famine, but by then 2 - 3 million lives were lost.

North Korean Famine 1994-98

One of the most devastating famines of modern times, the North Korean famine or March of Suffering, lasted between 1994 and 1998. This famine occurred due to a combination of natural causes and dictatorship rule. 1995 saw large flooding, destroying over a million tons of grain. North Korea’s policy of ‘military first’ also meant that resources, manpower and food supply were directed to the military over civilians, meaning, in many cases, that civilians who could not forage or fend for themselves simply starved to death. Foreign aid did help to reduce the death toll, and nearly 3.5 metric tons of food donations were received. Despite this, it is estimated that some 3 million lives were lost, though the numbers were said to be significantly underreported by North Korean officials.

Persian Famine 1917-19

World War I brought a period of famine and sickness throughout much of Persia, then ruled by the Qajar dynasty. One of the leading factors in this famine was the successive years of severe droughts which greatly reduced farming outputs. Additionally, what food was produced was confiscated by occupying forces. Changes to trade as well as general unrest during the war heightened fears and created hoarding situations which further exacerbated the situation. This, in conjunction with poor harvests and war profiteering combined to form a famine which spread quickly throughout the area. Death toll numbers are widely debated, but most scholars estimate around 2 million lost their lives due to famine or resulting diseases.

(Video) Top 10 Terrible Famines In History

Irish Potato Famine 1845-1853

The Deadliest Famines In History (7)

Another one of the worst famines is the Irish Potato Famine which occurred between 1845 and 1853. It was caused by a crop disease which killed off much of Ireland’s potatoes. This was the largest food source at the time, especially for the poorer citizens, and the lack of potatoes meant a drastic lack of food. With crops limited, Ireland needed help in order for their people to get enough food to survive. However, British national ships prevented aid from other nations, thus causing further death and starvation. An estimated 1 million people died coming at a high cost to the Irish population. Nearly 25% of the country’s citizens were wiped out, with some 1 to 2 million others fleeing to North America.


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What was the deadliest famine in history? ›

The 'Great Leap Forward'-famine in China from 1959-61 was the single largest famine in history in terms of absolute numbers of deaths. Excess mortality estimates vary hugely, but based on our midpoint estimates, it cost more than double the number of lives than any other famine.

What was the worst food crisis in history? ›

The 1980s Ethiopia famine was one of the worst humanitarian events of the 20th century, galvanizing the world's attention to end widespread starvation and save lives. Ethiopia's food shortages and hunger crisis from 1983 to 1985 led to an estimated 1 million famine deaths, according to the United Nations.

What stopped the Great Famine? ›

HERB-1, they believe, was responsible for the Great Famine and hundreds of other potato crop failures around the world. It wasn't until the early 20th century that improvements in crop breeding yielded potato varieties that proved resistant to HERB-1 that the deadly infection was stopped in its tracks.

Which country has the most famine? ›

The world's hungriest countries: What we're missing

In 2022, several countries rank around Yemen in terms of hunger levels. They include Burundi, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria.

Will there be no food in 2050? ›

By 2050, with the global population expected to reach 9.8 billion, our food supplies will be under far greater stress. Demand will be 60% higher than it is today, but climate change, urbanization, and soil degradation will have shrunk the availability of arable land, according to the World Economic Forum.

What is the one food that never spoils? ›

HoneyHoney is the only food that actually lasts forever and never spoils. We can thank nature for the whole process of making and procuring honey. It is made using the nectar of the flowers which mixes with the enzymes extracted by the bees.

Is America struggling with food? ›

The prevalence of food insecurity in 2021 is unchanged from 2020. In 2021, 89.8 percent of U.S. households were food secure throughout the year. The remaining 10.2 percent of households were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 3.8 percent (5.1 million households) that had very low food security.

Why did the Irish only eat potatoes? ›

Potatoes took up very little space and were very nutritious. One acre of potatoes could feed a family of four for a year. Potatoes also grew well in the rocky soil. At least two-thirds of the farmers in Ireland grew only potatoes for themselves and their family.

Will there be famine in 2022? ›

"There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022. And 2023 could be even worse," said Guterres, calling mass hunger and starvation unacceptable in the 21st century.

What did the Irish eat during the Great Famine? ›

Scientific analysis of dental calculus – plaque build-up – of victims found evidence of corn (maize), oats, potato, wheat and milk foodstuffs. The corn came from so-called Indian meal imported in vast amounts to Ireland from the United States as relief food for the starving populace.

How many people starve to death in the United States? ›

Starvation Deaths by Country 2023
Country2023 Population
United States339,996,563
221 more rows

Where is the most hunger in the world? ›

More than half of the world's undernourished people live in Asia — 418 million. The number of hungry people in Africa represents more than one-third of the world's undernourished.
Where are the worst spots for hunger?
  • Middle Africa: 31.8%
  • East Africa: 28.1%
  • Western Africa: 18.7%
  • Caribbean: 16.1%
  • Southern Asia: 15.8%
Apr 4, 2022

Which country has the least hunger? ›

Which are the least hungry countries in the World as per the latest Global Hunger Index? Eighteen countries, including China, Brazil and Kuwait, shared the top rank with GHI score of less than five in 2021.

Will we run out of food in 2023? ›

The WFP predicts that by 2023 there will be a shortage of wheat and corn, which are two staple products in the food supply chain. The reports also estimate that these shortages will increase global food prices and could even trigger a new global recession.

Can the Earth ever run out of food? ›

It said scientists put the limit on how many people Earth can feed at 10 billion maximum. The website uses the latest and most accurate live statistics on the state of the planet. As at the time of writing, TheWorldCounts said Earth will run out of food in 27 years and 249 days.

What will people still be eating in 50 years time? ›

“Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.”

What 2 foods can you survive on? ›

Technically a person can survive well into adulthood without any major health issues off of just eggs and potatoes; though, cholesterol may become an issue when older.

What is the oldest edible food? ›

The oldest edible food in the world is honey, found in a tomb in Ancient Egypt. It's around 3,000 years old and hasn't spoiled due to the honey's antimicrobial properties.

How many Americans can't afford groceries? ›

Survey: Over 92% of Americans Can't Afford Groceries and 50% Report a Decline in Health | Fresh n' Lean.

What foods will be in short supply in 2022? ›

Butter Shortage
  • Hershey's Halloween Candy Shortage. ...
  • Food Shortages: Sabra Hummus Shortage 2022. ...
  • Mustard Shortage. ...
  • Food Shortages: Sriracha Shortage. ...
  • Milk Shortage. ...
  • Tampon Shortage. ...
  • Baby Formula Shortage.
Oct 17, 2022

Are we in a food crisis 2022? ›

Overall, the number of food-insecure people in 2022 is estimated at 1.3 billion, an increase of 118.7 million people, or 10 percent, from ERS' 2021 estimate. Moreover, almost 33 percent of the population of the IFSA countries is considered food insecure in 2022.

Why was 1847 the worst year of the famine? ›

The following year, 1847, known as 'Black '47' in folk memory, marked the worst point of the Famine. The potato crop did not fail that year, but most potato farmers had either not sown seeds in expectation that the potato crop would fail again, did not have any more seeds or had been evicted for failure to pay rent.

When was the worst year of the famine? ›

Ireland had its worst famine in 1845 when a famine called the Great Famine occured. It lasted until about 1850 but the worst years were between 1845 and 1849. It is estimated that almost one million people died and another million Irish people emigrated by the end of the famine.

Why was the famine so severe in Ireland? ›

Between 1845-52 Ireland suffered a period of starvation, disease and emigration that became known as the Great Famine. The main cause was a disease which affected the potato crop, upon which a third of Ireland's population was dependent for food.

Was the Irish famine a man made disaster? ›

The Irish potato famine was not simply a natural disaster. It was a product of social causes. Under British rule, Irish Catholics were prohibited from entering the professions or even purchasing land. Instead, many rented small plots of land from absentee British Protestant landlords.

Who was to blame for the Great Famine? ›

What caused the Great Famine? The Great Famine was caused by a failure of the potato crop, which many people relied on for most of their nutrition. A disease called late blight destroyed the leaves and edible roots of the potato plants in successive years from 1845 to 1849.

What did the Irish eat during the famine? ›

Scientific analysis of dental calculus – plaque build-up – of victims found evidence of corn (maize), oats, potato, wheat and milk foodstuffs. The corn came from so-called Indian meal imported in vast amounts to Ireland from the United States as relief food for the starving populace.

Will there be a famine in 2023? ›

As many as 50m people will begin 2023 on the brink of famine. And with governments still reeling from the covid-19 pandemic and grappling with slowing economic growth, many of those people could be starving in the coming months. Listen to this story. Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.

How long did the famine last in the Bible? ›

In the book of Samuel, we read that Israel endured a three-year famine in the time of David, considered Israel's greatest king. When David inquires as to the cause of the famine, he is told that it is due to the sins of his predecessor and mortal enemy, Saul.

What was the first famine in the world? ›

The earliest recorded famine which occurred in Egypt in 3500 BC was preserved visually in a relief that survives on the causeway of the Fifth-Dynasty Pyramid of Unas in Sakkara.

Why didn't the Irish just fish during the famine? ›

The question is often asked, why didn't the Irish eat more fish during the Famine? A lot of energy is required to work as a fisherman. Because people were starving they did not have the energy that would be required to go fishing, haul up nets and drag the boats ashore.

Did anyone help the Irish during the famine? ›

In addition, Abdul Mejid Khan was Sultan of the Ottoman Empire became involved in Famine relief for the Irish and donated one thousand pounds and it is also said that he sent three ships with food supplies to Drogheda! The Jewish community in New York raised hundreds of dollars for famine relief in Ireland.

Who suffered the most in the Irish famine? ›

The famine did not affect all of Ireland in the same way. Suffering was most pronounced in western Ireland, particularly Connaught, and in the west of Munster. Leinster and especially Ulster escaped more lightly. The following map shows the severity of the famine across Ireland in 1847; the height of the Famine.

Are the British to blame for the Irish famine? ›

The landed proprietors in Ireland were held in Britain to have created the conditions that led to the famine. However, it was asserted that the British parliament since the Act of Union of 1800 was partly to blame.

Did the Catholic Church help during the Irish famine? ›

Catholic Church

Some established their own relief committees to raise funds. The two Catholic bishops who were particularly involved were Archbishop Murray of Dublin and Archbishop MacHale of Tuam. Catholic aid continued beyond 1847, when many other forms of private relief had ceased.

Where did the Irish settle in America? ›

Irish immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s settled mainly in coastal states such as New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, but also in western states such as Illinois and Ohio.


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