More than 70 million people died in famines during the 20th century. This paper compiles excess mortality estimates from over 30 major famines and assess the success of some parts of the world – China, the Soviet Union, and more recently India and Bangladesh – in apparently eradicating mass mortality food crises. This is contrastes with the experience of sub-Saharan Africa where famines precipitated by adverse synergies between natural triggers (drought) and political crisis (civil wars) have become endemic since the late 1960s.

The paper also examines the evolving discourse around famine causation during the century, and finds that despite the proliferation of demographic, economic and political theories, each embodies the reductionist perspective of disciplinary specialisation. The paper concludes by arguing that if famine is to be completely eradicated during the 21st century this requires not just technical (food production and distribution) capacity but substantially more political will, at national and international levels, than has been evident to date.