What constitutes a famine?

Learn what it means when hunger becomes famine.

What is famine?

Last updated March 27, 2024

The definition of famine is very precise and the experience of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in this area can provide some context.

What constitutes a famine?

There are five levels of food insecurity, with famine being the worst. The term famine can be used when the following criteria are met: 

  • The mortality rate exceeds two deaths per 10,000 people per day 
  • Acute malnutrition exceeds 30% 
  • One person in every five is not getting enough to eat 

Who is at risk of famine?

MSF knows from experience that periods of actual famine are relatively rare. They are limited both in time and space, and are marked by very high mortality—not just among those considered at risk (young children and the elderly)—but the whole population.  

What causes famine?

The causes of famine are varied. They can be natural, but in some cases, food insecurity is largely manmade due to conflict, preventing people from cultivating their land, cutting off supply routes, and raising food prices. 

How can we respond to food crises? 

  • Reestablish access to adequate supplies of nutritious food. This can be achieved either by enabling local people to cultivate their fields, to tend to their livestock and trade, or by distributing food. This requires allowing civilians and aid workers to circulate freely, provide nutritional support to the most vulnerable (particularly children), timely distributions, or food supplements adapted to their specific needs.  
  • Prevent the onset of acute malnutrition and treat cases of severe acute malnutrition, either in the home with ready-to-use therapeutic foods or in a hospital. Medical teams also treat malaria, respiratory infections, and diarrhea illnesses triggered by malnutrition that increase the likelihood of death. None of these are possible in some areas experiencing a food crisis—often, not because of a lack of funds, but because people are isolated and cut off from the world by warring parties who have little concern for their survival, but on whom access to aid depends. 

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