Here are some of the worst famines in the 20th century. In China between 1958 and 1962, an estimated 10 to 30 million people died as a result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. The government was unaware of the problems and continued to export food and cut imports several years into the famine. Farmers were collectivised into communes of about 25,000 people and had to give the state a large percentage of their crops. Officials often exaggerated the size of harvests, and in many places the entire grain harvest was seized.
In the Soviet Union in 1921-22, 9 million people died because of massive crop failures due to drought. Lenin did not respond until it was too late. Again, in Ukraine in 1932-34, 8 million people died as a result of Stalin’s industrialization programme in which the government seized grain for exports. It needed the hard currency to buy industrial equipment. Stalin refused to them food aid.
Famine is often the result of:
- Climate conditions such as drought or other natural disasters such as flooding. Also soil degradation, desertification etc.
- Underdevelopment. Famine often occurs in countries with subsistence agriculture, that is, where most farming is aimed at producing just enough food energy to survive.
- Imbalance of population and food supply (over-population, sometimes as a consequence of refugee flows, in themselves the consequence of war, civil unrest, or famine elsewhere).
- War or civil unrest.
- Inadequate logistics for food distribution.
- Misguided or plain evil government policy. This is obvious from the examples above. The Great Irish Famine, 1845-1849, occurred as food was being shipped from Ireland to England because the English could afford to pay higher prices. The same thing happend during the 1973 famine in Ethiopia when food was shipped to other regions in Ethiopia because the people there could pay more. Famine is sometimes used as a tool of repressive governments as a means to eliminate opponents, as was the case in the Ukranian famine.
- Lack of democratic governance, resulting in lack of information flows and accountability. Amartya Sen stated that shortfalls in food supply do not cause widespread deaths in a democracy because vote-seeking politicians will undertake relief efforts and will be aware of the problems thanks to the freedom in their countries.
- A combination of the elements above.
It is often stated that climate change will result in more famines in the future, as a result of desertification, flooding, hurricanes etc.