Famine (Latin fames, hunger) a scarcity of grain, or other staple food of a people, such as to produce general starvation. Its causes have been classed as natural and artificial. Natural are either drought, generally in tropical countries, or excessive rain in more northern climates; inundations; the inroads of destructive insects - e.g. locusts, and (much less frequently) storms, high tides, volcanic eruptions, and now and then pestilences. Destruction of forests is a frequent cause of drought, and sometimes of flood; since the rain then runs off more rapidly, denuding the slopes of earth, and overlaying the natural drainage. Hence great attention is now paid to the conservation and replanting of trees, especially in India and on the Continent. [Forestry.] Flooded land becomes heavy and sodden, and apt (partly from the destruction of the earthworms) to cake and prevent air reaching the roots of the vegetation. Wet seasons too often promote mildew and various blights, as in the Irish potato famine. Artificial causes, which mostly however are only subsidiary to natural, are wars, restriction of the free passage of goods, and, according to Mr. Walford (see below) debasement of currency. An attempt has been made by Mr. J. N. Lockyer to connect the periodical failure of the rains in India with the eleven-year periods of the occurrence of sun-spots (q.v.), which are signs of internal solar activity; but the records available only extend over the last seventy years.
Until civilisation is tolerably advanced and variety of industry and facilities of communication are pretty thoroughly established, almost every community is within measurable distance of famine once a year. Spring is called by the Greek poet Alcaeus, "the time when all is blooming, but there is not enough to eat." Again, between 1066 and 1600 about fifty famines are recorded in England alone - on the average, about one every nine years. Clearly, when a population chiefly produces food for its own consumption, has little stored wealth, or coined money, and poor communications, any failure of crops in a district must mean distress. This was one cause of the great Irish famine. Agriculture was the staple industry, and little coin was in circulation. Again: population tending to multiply up to its means of subsistence, a people that lives on the cheapest staple food available is always liable to famine should that fail. This was the case in the great Irish famine of 1845-47.
The means of coping with famine have been much discussed, especially with reference to India. Irrigation works are an obvious preventive, and many have been constructed; but it has been questioned if they can generally be commercially successful, and, if not, how can they be paid for by a people which has so little taxable surplus? Conservation of forests is a preventive more generally accepted. Improved communications - e.g. railways - are of use less as facilitating transport of grain in a famine (since the people have then nothing to buy it with) than in stimulating production in good years by opening up markets, and so enabling the cultivators to acquire and store wealth. Relief works are commonly opened in Indian famines, as during the Irish famine of 1845-47; but the labour of half-starved men is not of much use, and the works have necessarily been hurriedly and often unskilfully planned. Variety of industry, variety of crops, and free movement of goods are obvious preventives and palliatives. Still more efficient is a tolerably high standard of comfort, preventing increase of population up to the limit of subsistence. The most civilised part of the world, it may be said, is tolerably free, on the whole, from any danger of severe famine, until (according to Malthus's theory) food production reaches its ultimate limits and population overtakes it. It has been estimated recently that the world will be pretty well filled by the end of the 20th century, but much industry has recently been expended by Prince Kropotkine and some American writers in showing that the limit of food-production is indefinitely remote, Mr. Edward Walford in a remarkable paper (Journal of the Statistical Society, vols. xlii. xliii.) established inductively the connection between famines and the causes above mentioned, and gave a list of 350 recorded famines, of which the following may be cited: -
A.D. 879. - Universal famine.
1058-1065. - Seven years' drought in Hindostan.
1069-1072. - Famine, after Norman Conquest, in England.
1065-1072. - Seven years' drought in Egypt, and pestilence.
1316-1317. - Great dearth in England (from wet seasons).
1347. - Italy (followed by pestilence - two-thirds of population destroyed).
1527. - Severe famine in England.
1769-70. - Terrible famine in India: a million people died.
1822. - Irish famine.
1846-47. - Irish famine: about 275,000 died of starvation; some estimates place the deaths from starvation and pestilence combined at over a million. These, with emigration, reduced the population by two millions.
1865. - Great famine in Orissa, India.
1877. - Southern India: very extensive.
1877-78. - Famine in North China due to floods in some districts, drought in others: between three and four million persons required relief.
1878. - Morocco.
1892. - Russia (due to drought from destruction of forests).
1896-7. - Great Famine in India extending over a large area, followed by pestilence.