Our food power is following rationing to the history books

I ended last week’s column by speculating whether or not we would ever again see food rationing like we had during and for several years after Second World War. The flip answer would be “of course not”. Supplies of food are plentiful, orchestrated by a small but powerful group of retailers whose shelves are always full.

Crop yields have multiplied since the 1940s. Production technologies have been developed enabling farmers to control most diseases of livestock and crops. And if there’s a shortage it’s quick and relatively cheap to transport food from one continent to another. Further, despite world financial problems, we are wealthier than we were and able to afford whatever we want, wherever it comes from.

Back in 1941 Britain had neither sufficient food nor the wherewithal to buy more. As the Daily Telegraph reminded recently in its retrospective series on “Britain at War”, we relied on supplies from America under the terms of the Lease and Lend Act. Indeed the Daily Telegraph of August 27, 1941 reported that extra “canned meats, fish and breakfast cereals transported in bulk” were on their way across the Atlantic – always assuming they escaped the attentions of German U-boats.

On the same day in 1941 the Telegraph reported that the food minister, Lord Woolton, had said supplies of condensed milk should equal the anticipated peak demand in the coming winter. “The amount of liquid milk”, however, “may vary, in which case the basic ration will be altered.” “It all depends on the cow,” a Ministry of Food official said.

Meanwhile, schoolchildren were encouraged to gather wild blackberries from the hedgerows and housewives were asked by the ministry to make “the fullest use of them”. At the same time, to meet increased demand for cake, confectionery and biscuits, the ministry arranged for a larger allocation of sugar and fat for bakers. In return, manufacturers were expected to maximise output of inexpensive products in proportion to the increased allowances.

Retailers were alerted to reserve onion orders, at 2lb per person for the season, during the first week of September. “Those failing to reserve will not get any.” Reservations were to be made by supplying names and addresses “on the counterfoil SC4 at the bottom of page 27 of the general ration book”.

Restrictions like that are unimaginable to today’s consumers. Moreover, we are told that they (together with others along the food chain) waste and throw away more than 30% of food that should be consumed. That didn’t happen in 1941 and any waste was collected and fed to pigs.

But let’s consider some other changes. The population of the UK was estimated then at under 2.5 million. Today it’s almost 70 million. Meanwhile, the world population has increased from around 2.5 billion in 1941 to 7 billion now – and rising. All need food each day.

The USA, which saved us during the war, now uses a third of its grain to produce ethanol. World reserves of grain and other soft commodities are scraping the bottom of the bin as China, whose economy is booming, begins buying from world markets. India, where the economy is also accelerating fast, is buying too and currency reserves in both countries are mounting.

Meanwhile, western currency values are on the slide as debts climb. Almost every day it costs more US dollars, euros and pounds to buy consumer goods and food from other countries. Is there anybody out there who believes western dominance of the world economy can last? And when the renminbi and the rupee take over, might we be back to rationing again?

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