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The Government campaign
to keep Britain fed in WW2

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British agriculture before World War Two

Before world war two home front, British farming was very traditional with little mechanisation or modern methods. It relied on massive amounts of unskilled labour and had a strong emphasis towards livestock.

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Where food came from at the outset of the war

The country's farming processes meant that there was a shortfall between food consumption and domestic food production. Before the war started, this was taken up by the cheap and ready supply from imports. Imported food provided more than two-thirds of the calories consumed and half of the total protein supply.

In 1939 approximately 70% of all food in the UK was imported, a staggering 55 million tons of it. The key suppliers were located across the world and included, in order of importance, Argentina, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India Burma and the USA.

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How the war affected imports of food

The German U-Boat blockades and the need to make best use of shipping capacity for the war effort devastated the supply of imported food.

The worst period was the winter of 1940-41, when U-boats were sinking supply ships three times faster than they could be built.

Drastic measures were needed to improve British food production and for the country struggling under wartime conditions to become more self-sufficient.

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How the Government reacted

The campaign to ensure Britain remained adequately fed was instigated by Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food from 1940 to 1943, and he gained most of the credit for its success. In 1943 the campaign was led by the agricultural economist, Professor John Raeburn, who had been recruited to the Ministry of Food in 1939.

The campaign had a number of spearheads. One was to bring land into farming that had been abandoned or never previously used. Another was to encourage people to keep rabbits and poultry and turn their gardens into vegetable plots. Yet others were rationing, price control and publicity on nutrition and innovative recipes to make the best use of what was available.

It was a massive education and publicity campaign.

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Best use of land to keep Britain fed

The Ministries of Food and Agriculture did calculations about land use and human need and found that it was far more efficient to use land for arable farming than for keeping sheep and cattle. Thus it became clear that land currently used for animals should be taken over for crops. Although this meant a decrease in the amount of meat produced, the Government decided that it would have to be one of the many wartime sacrifices.

The reduction in meat production brought with it a lack of animal fats in the form of butter and lard, so it also became essential to grow more oilseed crops.

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Effect of the campaign on land use

Grassland was ordered to be ploughed up in order to expand the area used to grow the crops which went straight into human food, such as carrots, wheat and potatoes.

A total of 300,000 farms were targeted by the Ministry of Agriculture for improvement, and the government funded additional workers and equipment to support the necessary changes. The vast majority of the new workers were land girls.

Within five years domestic food production had almost doubled. Much of the 'new' agricultural land turned over to food production had not had crops growing on it since Roman times.

The target was to have 1.7 million more acres producing food by the harvest of 1940 and to have an additional 6½ million acres of arable fields by 1944.

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The result was that by 1944 the country could feed itself for approximately 160 days a year instead of only 120 days as had been the case when war broke out. A great improvement, but there was still the dangerous and costly need for the Merchant Navy to risk lives and ships to bring food in from overseas.

By the end of the war in 1945 there had been a 90% increase in the domestic production of wheat.