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7 September 2021

From the NS archive: The food situation

24 April 1941: Rationing and the great food divide.

By Ritchie Calder

Almost immediately after the Second World War broke out, Germany adopted a tactic from the UK’s First World War playbook and targeted Britain’s food supply. From 1940, food rationing was introduced by the government as an attempt to ensure fair shares for all at a time of national shortage. Yet in this piece for the New Statesman from 1941, Ritchie Calder reveals the inequalities that rationing could not hide. The Scottish socialist and journalist explains the attempts by the Ministry of Food to tackle the food divide, whether that be using a points-based system or establishing “British Restaurants” as non-profit, communal canteens. But he shows concern that the government was still more concentrated on turning a profit rather than prioritising the health of the population. Calder worries what will happen after the government concerns itself with “benefiting the producer” and rationing is “dictated, not by nutritional standards, but by the bulk of supplies”.


The food position of Britain at the present time is roughly that of Germany in 1916. And we are facing a worsening of the shipping position. We would be fools if we did not recognise that the situation is pretty grim; that, in fact, the prospects, with Hitler in possession of the Channel Ports and straddling our sea-routes, and bombing our warehouses, is worse than anything we had to face in the last war. And hunger is not a thing you can dissipate with pep-talk. Nor is it a matter for improvisation, but for clear-sighted and long-sighted policy. At least we have this consolation: that, even on the analogy of Germany’s 1916 food resources, we still have years before we reach the breaking point, and we know why Germany’s food front collapse and we know, through the Science of Nutrition, how to get the utmost value out of available foods.

Nazi Germany, however, also knows. It is criminal folly to imagine that Germany will collapse through food blockade this time. The Nazi food economy has been devised, like the German military tactics, to turn to account for lessons learned from mistakes last time. It switched its food economy in 1935. While the people were being inured to the monotony and stringency of wartime feed even in peacetime, the agricultural policy was being adapted in such a way as to make Germany nearly self-supporting in the essentials. One of the contributory factors in the last war was the lack of fertilisers, especially nitrate. Now through the fixation of nitrogen so that it can be obtained from the boundless air by the process discovered by the German Jew [Fritz] Haber (driven into exile), there is abundance. Another factor was the insistence on maintaining beef cattle, although there was not sufficient supply of feed stuff. Thus the fat stock became extremely thin stock – just flesh and bone, skin, and skeleton, without the desperately needed fat, and practically of no value of food. In preparation for this war, Germany went over basic needs and saw to it that there would be no shortage of bread, milk and vegetables. Indeed it has been estimated that Germany can actually spare calories to the rest of Europe. Her weak points may be fats, because of the competing military needs, for explosives and for lubricants. The pillage from occupied countries is just “buckshee” as far as the dire essentials are concerned.

The other day I listened to one of our food experts enthusiastically propounding our new policy which was to be based, not on fat cattle, but upon milk cows, not upon subsidised wheat, but upon fresh vegetables and root crops. When his evangelic fervour had abated, I pointed out that I have heard Sir John Orr propounding such a policy, not as the desperate measures of a beleaguered garrison, but as the expansive policy of sound peacetime nutrition. Why has there been resistance, not only in peace, but so far in war, to such a policy? The answer surely is that the National Farmers’ Union has been dominated by the fat stock interests and the Ministry of Agriculture by the National Farmers’ Union. Because, in this and in other things, the Ministry for Agriculture should be merged as a department of the Ministry of Food, subsidiary to the main purpose of feeding the people. Even though [Robert] Hudson has shown himself a Minister with character, the double harness will not work. You may recall how, in autumn of last year, the meat ration per head was raised to 2s, 2d. – ridiculously high in terms of war and the average expenditure on meat. This arose from the fact that the Ministry of Agriculture had fixed the price of meat too high, for the benefit of the producer, despite the warnings of the Ministry of Food. It could not work, and it did not. The next scale of prices had to be lower. So the patriotic fat stock dealers rushed to the slaughter houses to dispose of cattle before the drop in price. There was not sufficient refrigerator space to level up the glut and the ration had to be increased to 2s. 2d. to take it off the market. 

[See also: From the NS archive: Objections to a League of Nations]

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Now with the restrictions of shipping space and the curtailment of the imports of feeding stuffs, a virtue is being made of necessity. First priority is being given to dairy cattle. Then comes beef cattle. Then sheep. Then pigs. Then poultry. This takes into account the relative efficiency of the animals as food factories. To produce one pound of human food milk, cows require five pounds of feeding stuffs, beef cattle require twenty pounds, pigs eight pounds and hens fifteen pounds. It takes two and a half times the weight of an egg in feeding stuffs to produce an egg. It will be seen that, in terms of feeding stuffs, beef cattle are still an exorbitant luxury.

It could be argued quite fairly that it would be better to liquidate our beef cattle into milk and to import, in place of the feeding stuffs they would consume, boneless meat or canned meat. But there is a strong case for maintaining a proportion of our beef herds. There is a biological case for the order of priority. It takes you longer to breed cattle than to breed sheep, longer to breed sheep than to breed pigs, longer to breed pigs than to breed poultry. We can replace a hen quickly when we want to, and the sheep, after all, gives us not only mutton but wool. Bacon really is not highly necessary, nor a staple article of diet, as was evident when a third of the popular did not even exercise its bacon ration. It is most important to concentrate on dairy produce, because it is an essential form of our protective diet. So, too, we must concentrate on vegetables, particularly on potatoes. There is not likely to be a repetition of last year’s meat glut (although fat cattle are being killed off and the farmer will be tempted to wait until after the summer-grass feeding), because the slaughtering will be controlled. Prices are to be scaled to make slaughter early rather than late. Needless to say, fat stock breeders are “kicking like mad.” Anyway, there will be more refrigerator accommodation this year, so the stocks can be held and released as needed.

It took the Ministry of Food a long time to realise that there was anything scientific about food, or that there was, in fact, a science of nutrition which might be rather important. Rationing, for instance, is dictated, not by nutritional standards, but by the bulk of supplies. It was almost by accident that Professor JC Drummond, the eminent bio-chemist and nutrition expert, was discovered tucked away in a ministerial backroom. He had been taken on as an expert on the gas-contamination of food – a military, rather than strictly nutritional assignment.

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The belated Government Scientific Advisory Committee on Food, under Sir William Bragg, and including Sir John Orr, whose prescience surely should have made him a key man from the start, is now functioning and seems to be getting its own way. Criticism of the Ministry has not been lacking. Its policy has been of a hand-to-mouth kind with Lord Woolton putting into our mouths anything with which he found his hands full. When carrots were plentiful, they were the Elixir of Life. When onions were scarce, well, what use were onions anyway? People get rather tired of sour grapes! Another difficulty has been that the Ministry has, not unnaturally, “thought Nationally.” That is to say it estimates that there is ample oatmeal in hand to launch an “Eat More Oatmeal” campaign. But when housewives in, say, Nottingham, clamour for oatmeal as Lord Woolton suggests, the shopkeepers have no supplies. Why? Because the people in the locality have not hitherto eaten much oatmeal and the shopkeepers have not stocked it and are unable to lay hands on supplies at short notice. Would it not be wise for the Ministry, before launching some new idea to deal with the surplus, to see that dumps of the food are laid down in each district? Of course there would be trouble with the wholesale dealers.

The Ministry has done a great deal to curb the abuses of privileged eating in restaurants. It could still be argued that expensive restaurants, as distinct from workers’ canteens and other communal feeding centres where essential workers get their rations supplemented, should be confined to unrationed goods, which are more expensive or which need more skilful preparation. There is also an argument, in districts where, for any reason, there is a temporary shortage of rationed goods, that Ministry of Food officials should have power to intervene and fix prices of unrationed goods and to “corner them,” if necessary, for communal canteens. For instance, the Municipal Cafeteria at Coventry went without meat for a week and the manageress had to go into the open market and compete for high-priced turkeys, salmon, poultry, etc, to supply eightpenny portions. She had to risk a loss in order to maintain an essential service – communal feeding.

There has been a clamour for differential rationing, ie, for making special allocations for certain types of workers or industries. There was the classic case of miners, who had to go without their “bait” because of the shortage of cheese. That has now been overcome by ensuring preferential supplies of cheese for mining and agricultural areas. Lord Woolton has now doubled the rations of prepared meats (breakfast sausage, etc), which are extensively used by workers who take their midday meal with them in the form of sandwiches. The argument against extending differential rationing is that even the TUC is not prepared to define a “heavy worker” for the purpose of getting additional calory value. It is fair to say that the Ministry of Food and the Inter-Departmental Committee, as well as the Cabinet Food Committee, have given a great deal of thought to the extension of rationing by devices like the “point system” as used in Germany and other methods. The “point system” is based on the allocation of so many points per head and if you squander them on caviar instead of on corned beef, it is just too bad for you!

One way of ensuring the economical distribution of food is through the extension of communal feeding and some of us would be happier if we saw the policy of establishing “British Restaurants” being prosecuted more vigorously. There was definitely a “piping down” on communal feeding, but I am assured that this was merely because of the need for making local authorities concentrate on emergency feeding, that is, provision for the homeless rather than the general public. Again, it has been complained that the local authorities have been given the impression that communal feeding is purely a wartime measure and must not be glorified into a social service; that it will end with the war. This impression given by the Ministry of Food may be politic in the case of reactionary Councils, who see communal feeding merely as a threat to private enterprise. But it is confusing the issue. Communal feeding, many of us believe, has come to stay. The excuse of the Ministry of Food would be that it is itself only a wartime expedient – an ad hoc Ministry. Here again we should insist that it has come to stay.

Even more disturbing are the signs of “food bootlegging.” Just as when Prohibition came to America, the racketeers “cashed in,” so with food regulation and rationing, unscrupulous speculators are trafficking in contraband food. There is evidence of a “black market” where food can be bought without restriction if the price is high enough. Much of the supply is probably stolen – a considerable proportion of the convoy intended to feed Sheffield after the blitz “went missing” between the dock town and Sheffield. There are reports of sheep being slaughtered in the fields in the black-out – in fact, all the symptoms of a new form of crime. And there are certainly “food speakeasies” – premises unlicensed by the Ministry which are catering illicitly for the gluttons.

There is cause for disquiet in the vegetable traffic. The Ministry of Food has just announced the setting up of a Vegetable Board which will buy up and entirely control the supplies of carrots and onions. It will fix the price for the producers. It will pay a fixed commission to the dealers and charge a reasonable price for the consumers. The State, as it were, has become a Limited Liability Company with, as its general manager in this case, one of the biggest vegetable wholesalers. It certainly can be appropriately extended to the Canning Industry. While there are about 250 small canners, there are only about five canning concerns that really matter. The need for proper canning of all surplus supplies in season and of meat and other necessities is obvious. It must be done at once.

We are facing difficult times, yet it is true to say that, with the proper food demonstrations, proper distribution and proper instruction of the public, we can really turn the situation to advantage. Sir John Orr’s underfed half of the population can be properly fed. The overfed section of the peacetime community will be all the better for being curtailed. We started the war with a higher standard of nutrition, as a nation, than we have had since the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps that is why we have resisted so well the onslaughts of the blitz and the menace of disease.

We can hold the Food Front, but it needs wisdom, it needs foresight, it needs frankness.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)