Famine, a severe shortage of food affecting a large number of people, can be the result of either man-made or natural causes. Natural causes include droughts, plant disease, insect plagues, floods and earthquakes. The human causes include poverty, war, deliberate crop destruction and the inefficient distribution of food.
Almost every continent has experienced famine during some time in history, with North and South America remaining relatively of widespread famines. The European continent has only suffered famines occasionally, but starvation caused by World War II resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or people. The majority of researchers list about 400 famines that have occurred during recorded history. The most severe famines have been attributed to drought, conflict and misguided economic policies.
Considered the largest famine in history, Mao Zedong's 1958-1961 ill-fated attempt to transform China into an industrial nation resulted in starvation deaths estimated to be between 18 to 42 million people. Known as "The Great Leap Forward," it required peasants to abandon their farmlands and instead work on collective farms or foundries to produce steel. China has not experienced a famine of this magnitude since the agricultural collectivist policies were reversed.
The major famines of the late 20th century have taken place in Africa, with the most recent and severe cases being the result of war or civil unrest. Overall deaths caused by famine during the 20th century have been estimated to be about 70 million.