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The Famine

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An 1849 depiction of Bridget O'Donnell and her two children during the Irish Potato Famine.

"There was a great famine in Samaria; and behold, they besieged it, until a donkey's head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and a fourth of a kab of dove's dung for five shekels of silver. Now it came about after this, that Ben-hadad king of Aram gathered all his army and went up and besieged Samaria."

Famine is, simply put, the widespread scarcity of food in a society, and can be caused by natural calamities such as floods, droughts, or crop failures, or by human factors such as war, economic upheaval, or overpopulation.

A famine can be the starter of a story: The hero might have to flee his starving homeland or go elsewhere to search for food. It can also merely be the setting of the story, providing the excuse for the existence of a Black Market, showing the results of the tyranny of the local despot, contrasting those who do have food with those who are starving, explaining No Party Like a Donner Party and Reduced to Ratburgers, or describing one of the facets of After the End.

Famine used to be a feared event for humans, resulting in it being depicted as a divine punishment or something you prayed to the gods to avoid. Revolutions and mass migrations erupted over famines, and authorities would go to extreme ends to prevent them.


Depending of the gravity, the consequences can range from Societal Disruption or Collapse on a Regional Scale to Planetary-scale Societal Collapse.

See Horsemen of the Apocalypse and After the End. This trope is Wizard Needs Food Badly on a societal scale.


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    Film - Animated 
  • The Land Before Time V sees the residents of the Great Valley forced to leave in search of food, after "swarming leaf-gobblers" (prehistoric locusts) devoured all the edible plant matter there.

    Film - Live-Action 
  • Mr Jones (2019) is a historical drama set in the Thirties, following the journalist Gareth Jones going in Ukraine and discovering the Holodomor.

  • The spread of the Infection in An Outcast in Another World cuts The Village off from its primary food source. They’ll starve if they don’t fix the problem as soon as possible.
  • In Warrior Cats:
    • In the The New Prophecy arc, the human construction activity in the forest has driven away most of the prey, and the Clans also discover that the rabbits have been poisoned. This results in a famine for all the Clans, and, combined with the destruction of their homes, forces them to leave the forest.
    • The Dawn of the Clans arc begins with the Tribe of Rushing Water in a famine and half the Tribe leaving to find a new home, because they have become too overpopulated for their territory to feed them.
  • The Hunger Games: The protagonist tells how she nearly starved to death in the past. And she explains how mostly but not exclusively old people can occasionally be seen lying in the streets or leaned towards housewalls, dead. Those death will officially always be attributed to the flu, exposure or other natural causes, while nobody in the neighborhood believes that they did not die from starvation.
  • The Wheel of Time:
    • In early books, Cairhien suffers a famine due to an unusually violent Succession Crisis, with food being rerouted from the commoners to various noble Houses' armies. The Chosen One Rand orders food aid sent from Tear, which wins him popular support when he occupies Cairhien.
    • The growing power of the Dark One, a God of Evil, manifests as extreme climate change, oppressive cloud cover, and randomly accelerated decay that cause global food shortages. Part of Rand's Darkest Hour is when the entire food shipment to the worst-hit city suddenly rots away: he briefly abandons the city, but returns after some Epiphany Therapy to save it with the full force of his Fisher King powers.
  • Mistborn: The Original Trilogy: Famine is one of the tools that Ruin, a Piece of God bent on causing the apocalypse, uses to try to purge the planet of life. He starts with irregular weather to ruin harvests, then escalates to roving armies of mind-controlled Super Soldiers.
  • The Fifth Season is set on a continent that periodically turns into a Death World, so society is built around surviving years-long famines. Every household and community maintains caches of non-perishable food, and they're familiar with the Cold Equations of rationing resources when a "Season" comes. ("You don't think about the meat.")
  • Nikolai Gogol's Taras Bulba contains a chapter where Andriy infiltrates the Dubno Castle he and his father are currently besieging and is horrified by the lengths the defenders go to survive while deprived of food completely.
  • In Isaac Asimov's "The Winnowing", the world's population of six billion is suffering from a severe food shortage, and the leaders intend to randomly poison a couple billion to solve the problem.
  • The future section of The History Of Bees shows a bleak look at a world without bees/pollinating-insects. This means a world without most fruits, cereals and vegetables. Obviously, with reduced plant matter (bees pollinating common silage crops like hay) the husbandry of animals becomes more expensive and impractical, removing dairy and meat from the shop-shelves as well. The world of 2098 is one of an extended famine that has destroyed most of society as we know it.
  • Anarres, the moon settlement in The Dispossessed. goes through a famine that rocks the anarchist society. It survives, but goes through incredible hardships, when people were working as much as eight hours a day

  • The Fields of Athenry is about the story of a man named Michael getting Sentenced to Down Under for stealing "Trevelyn's corn" during the Irish Great Famine.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Civilization features famine as a calamity, whose impact can be reduced by holding grain after researching Pottery.
  • In Apocalypse World, famine is codified as one of the basic post-apocalyptic scarcities that can serve as catalysts for in-game storylines and events.
  • The indie RPG ''Holodomor'' takes place during the eponymous famine, and the player has to survive it.

    Religion and Mythology 
  • Several instances in The Bible:
    • Book of Genesis:
      • Abram and his wife Sara flee a starving Canaan to go to Egypt, and have to leave the Pharaoh's court after God curses them for Abram denying Sara was his wife.
      • Isaac used the same trick while fleeing the famine to Guerar, denying Rebecca was his wife, and ends in a similar fashion.
      • While in Ancient Egypt, Joseph manages to predict that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of want, and stores food accordingly; his brothers, who sold him years previously, led their families in Egypt to buy grain.
    • Books of Kings:
      • Prophet Eliyah told to impious king Achab no rain will fall for three and half years.
      • The town of Samaria, besieged by the Syrians, suffers a penury of food leading some to resort to cannibalism.
    • Book of Revelation
  • Classical Mythology: Demeter famously rendered the whole world's farmlands (as far as the ancient Greeks knew) infertile after Persephone's kidnapping, eventually forcing Zeus to broker her (partial) return. Depending on the Writer, this was either a matter of her just being so grief-stricken/busy searching for Persephone that she neglected her duties, or her deliberately creating famine to blackmail the other Gods (who did, after all, need living worshipers) into helping her.

    Video Games 
  • Empire Earth 2: During the Egyptian campaign, one level has a famine strike, and the people are so desperate for food they break into pyramids just to eat the mummies (despite the fact that there are other, normal sources of food around).
  • Pharaoh:
    • An often-seen event throughout the campaigns is a city suffering famine and begging you for food. Annoyingly, they always demand a specific type of food (such as fish or pomegranates), and you have to set it apart from the food used for your citizens' use. Not responding is a good way to ensure your approval rating drops like a brick.
    • One of the events added to the expansion is a plague of locusts, who reduce all crops to zero before leaving. Hope you had enough left in storage...
  • Zeus: Master of Olympus:
    • Famine in other cities is also an occasional event, but it's made easier by the fact that they ask for any kind of food and you can ask for food from any food-producing city, which they'll give if your relationship with them is high enough (including, in some cases, the city currently suffering from famine).
    • One mission sees your sources of importable food slowly dwindle until you're limited to the oranges you can grow and urchins, while the coastline keeps changing until your urchin collectors can't reach the urchin banks. The ending narration notes that everyone in the city is out of recipes for oranges.
    • Demeter (farming), Poseidon (seafood), Hera (oranges and cows), and Artemis (hunting) can bless your food-gathering industries if allied and curse them if they're your enemy in that scenario (in Demeter's case, permanently reducing the available amount of farmland). Usually the game gives you more than one source of food to counter this.
  • In the third game of Growlanser due to the weakening power of the sun the entire world is experiencing a famine. One country exists in the Last Fertile Region. The first third of the plot deals with this small country creating alliances to protect itself from those who are trying to raid them for food.
  • When there's not enough food in Stellaris, population growth stops and morale takes a hit.
  • Hamurabi and similar games are based around the idea of producing enough food to prevent famines. In Hamurabi, losing more than half of the population at once by starvation causes the player to lose.
  • From the Trails Series is the nation of North Ambria, which was hit by the Salt Pale, a giant pillar of salt that turned anything it came into contact with to salt. It bled into the soil and spread throughout North Ambria, killing a third of its population. While the Salt Pale eventually stopped and ran out of power, the soil was damaged beyond repair through salinization, making it difficult to grow anything, and making living conditions for the survivors terrible.
  • A frequent cause of colony collapse in Oxygen Not Included. Too many Duplicants with too few food sources can mean a lack of food, creeping atmosphere or temperature changes can cause crop failures, and food can rot to inedibility over time if care is not put into storage. All of these can force the colony to resort to mush bars and frantic digging for muckroots, and even those are not guaranteed to provide enough food.
  • In This War of Mine, thanks to the siege, no new food is entering the city, and everyone hoards what little supplies they have. Picking over the ruins for what edible scraps can be found is necessary, and people (including the players) can be driven to do desperate things by the need to find enough to eat to live one more day.
  • As revealed in the later stages of The Outer Worlds, the entire Halcyon system is barreling headlong into a galactic level famine. Thanks to irresponsible corporate idiocy, even the food available has zero nutrition. Meaning people are starving no matter how much they eat. And The Board has no idea how to fix it.
  • In between the third and fourth game of the Heroes of Might and Magic series, the Barbarian kingdom of Krewlod suffered a massive famine thanks to Kilgor (the player character of the Armageddon's Blade campaign "Festival of Life") burning many of Krewlod's farms during his campaign to become its new king. Kilgor's "solution" was to wage war on the rest of Enroth to plunder their lands. This would lead to the destruction of Enroth since Kilgor wielded the Sword of Frost while one of the foes standing in his way, Gelu, wielded Armageddon's Blade. When the two swords clashed, the collision of their formidable magical powers triggered the Reckoning, a massive explosion that destabilized the entire world and caused it to fall apart.
  • Strongly implied to be looming in We Happy Few, due to supplies from mainland Britain being cut off and citizens too addled on Joy to grow food instead of flowers. One sidequest in Arthur's story reveals that one butcher has resorted to making meat from corpses. Ollie's story all but confirms it, as he tries to make the Executive Committee aware of it only to learn that they're just as Joy-crazy as the rest of the town.

  • Ava's Demon: Odin's home planet Aedinfell is suffering from global food shortages due to its sun collapsing into a black hole and sinking it into Endless Winter, sparking bloody conflict over its dwindling resources.
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: In the backstory, Iceland kept The Plague from entering its territory by closing its borders. However, The Plague also made seaside fishing dangerous thanks to its tendency to change sea mammals into zombies whose presence would have made food imports from elsewhere tricky even if the country hadn't closed its borders. This resulted in Iceland spending its first decade of isolation scrambling to produce more food on its own lands while many died of starvation.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Smurfs (1981), the main characters go through a famine at least twice in the series. Once, in "Spelunking Smurfs", it came because of a drought, and the Smurfs sought after food in the forest until they found a cave with frozen food and a frozen ogre guarding it. Another time, in "The Horn Of Plenty", Mother Nature's bad broken wand causes the Smurfs' crops to wither and die right at harvest time, causing them to suffer penury during winter until they discover a land where its citizens are fed by a musical instrument called the Horn of Plenty.

    Real Life 
  • The Irish Potato Famine was provoked by blight destroying potato crops and caused Irish population to lose 6 millions out of 8, half by hunger and half by emigration.
  • The Soviet famine of 1932–1933, caused by collectivisation and grain exports to fund industrialization, caused the death of 6 or 7 million.
  • The ''Holodomor'' is a part of the beforementioned Soviet famine and caused the death of three millions in Ukraine.
  • During World War II, there were several large-scale war-related famines and diseases, which often went uncounted in casualty count. Countries or territories which weren't even belligerents of the war had some of the highest death count in the world because of this.
    • The most extreme, and one of the most underreported (Wikipedia doesn't even have a page for it), was the famine in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), during which up to 4 million died. This was caused by the Japanese policy of rationing food and creating a slave labor that was worse than anything the natives experienced during the long Dutch colonization beforehand. The Dutch East Indies had the world's fifth-highest WWII death count, 90% of which was caused by famine.
    • The Dutch East Indies' neighbor, the French Indochina (now Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) also had a disproportionate number of famine deaths that are equally underreported, with the hardest hit region being North Vietnam. The primary causes were typhoons that reduced the availability of food, Japan's occupation, American attacks on the region's transport system, and French colonial administration hindering an effective famine alleviation response. The colony experienced very little military activity, with virtually all of its 2.2 million deaths being caused by hunger.
    • On 1943, Bengal, then part of The British Raj, suffered a famine, caused mainly by World War II and the resulting disruption of food supply and the fact most of the resources went to the military. Like the Dutch East Indies, the Raj had one of the world's highest WWII death count at more than 3 million, only a fraction of which was made up of military casualties.
    • The Soviet Union also experienced this, among other WWII hardships, with a death count rivaling combat-related deaths. During the Siege of Leningrad, thanks to the Germans' policy of cutting supply lines, up to 1 million died of hunger and many more starved. Overall, as many as 9 million people died because of famine and disease.
    • The Dutch famine in 1944-1945, when a German blockade to hamper the Allies' advance cut off food and fuel shipments from farm towns. Some 4.5 million were affected and survived thanks to soup kitchens. Audrey Hepburn almost died of malnutrition in her youth because of this.
  • While China already went through three major famines (the Northern Chinese Famine of 1876–1879, the Chinese famine of 1928–1930, and the Chinese famine of 1942–43) the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1962), caused by the so-called Great Leap Forward stands as the biggest man-made famine in history. It was caused by radical collectivization, deep changes in agriculture, economic mismanagement, social pressure and to a degree bad weather conditions. The complete death toll remains unclear, modern Dutch historian Frank Dikötter researched all available archival sources and estimates around 45 million people dying directly or indirectly from starvation.


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