Increasing evidence indicates that decreased functional beta-cell mass is the hallmark of both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. This underlies the absolute or relative insulin insufficiency in both conditions. In this For Debate, we consider the possible mechanisms responsible for beta-cell death and impaired function and their relative contribution to insulin insufficiency in diabetes. Beta-cell apoptosis and impaired proliferation consequent to hyperglycaemia is one pathway that could be operating in all forms of diabetes. Autoimmunity and other routes to beta-cell death are also considered. Recognition of decreased functional beta-cell mass and its overlapping multifactorial aetiology in diabetic states, leads us to propose a unifying classification of diabetes.