How Britain was kept fed in World War Two
Why drastic action was necessary
It was quite obvious to the Government that Britain would not be able to feed itself in World War Two without drastic action. The two main reasons were as follows.
Devastated supply chains for imported food
In 1939 before the war started, 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. Imported food provided more than two-thirds of the calories consumed and half of the total protein supply.
Once the war started, 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.
British farming unable to supply enough food
Before the war, 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.
These farming processes meant that there was a significant shortfall between food consumption and domestic food production.
Drastic measures were needed to improve Britain's own food production and for the country struggling under wartime conditions to become more self-sufficient.
The Government response and campaign
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 rationing policy
Lord Woolton's policy was simple - to ration nothing, however scarce, until there was enough to go round and then to ensure that the ration, however small, was always honoured. He had no sympathy with those who complained that others could get some luxury which many others never saw.
"Food control," he insisted, "does not mean preventing the other fellow from getting something. It is a means of ensuring that we get all the things that are necessary."
"It is not comfort we are after. It is winning the war and using our food to keep us fit to win this war. That is the standard we are aiming for, a fighting standard. Food brings the reek of battle into the kitchens; all we ask for is that we should have enough of it and no more, to give us the sustaining spirit of battle." August 1942
of the World Carrot Museum
The main spearheads of the Government's campaign
The campaign had a number of spearheads, and it is important to realise that rationing, although probably the best known, was only one of them. The main ones were as follows, and have pages devoted to each of them - see the lower of the above menus:
- To bring land into food production that had been abandoned or never previously used
- To encourage the public to keep rabbits and poultry
- To encourage the public to turn their gardens into vegetable plots and keep allotments
- Control of prices so that the wealthy would not be able to buy their way into getting more food than everyone one else
- Publicity on nutrition and innovative recipes to make the best use of what was available. Some examples of making use of what was available were shooting wild game and collecting pig swill but there were probably others.
and of course:
- Rationing so that no-one would be better off than anyone else in terms of food they could buy. Rationing and Government advice was not limited to food because there were widespread other shortages. There is a whole section on this, see for example the page on clothes rationing .
Preparing the public for food rationing
It was a massive education and publicity campaign with considerable administrative requirements. Although war was not to come until September 1939, the Government realised months before that war was inevitable and started planning. As early as July 1939 the Lord Privy Seal's Office distributed leaflets to the public under the banner of Civil Defence. Public Information Leaflet no.4 was entitled Your Food in Wartime which you can read in full by clicking the image of its front page.