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Home arrow Political science arrow From Hunger to Malnutrition: The Political Economy of Scientific Knowledge in Europe, 1918-1960

The Post-war Food Crisis and the Impairment of Health Conditions

While the war was still in progress, political and military authorities believed that once hostilities ceased, trade would recover previous standards, food would flow abundantly from the surplus countries to the deficit areas and food habits would soon revert to a normal situation. However, their expectations were not fulfilled and, as backed by historical experience, the aftermath of war is often almost as difficult as war itself. World War II proved not to be an exception. The food situation worsened markedly over wide areas towards the end of the war and subsequently continued to deteriorate at an accelerated pace until, in the spring of 1946, famine conditions prevailed in several parts of Europe. The post-war food crisis cannot be fully understood without some reference to the wider aspects of the food problem, since its intensity was due in part to adverse natural factors such as droughts, and to the upheavals of the closing phases of the war, but fundamentally it reflected the dangerous unbalance of world agriculture and food trade systems.[1]

Even before the war, the international organisations had had great difficulty in compiling reliable statistics on world food production, basic estimates usually being simple approximations subject to a margin of error. The accuracy of the records did not improve during the war and in many countries the disorganisation of the civil administration rendered reliable statistics almost impossible. Especially in those countries where food shortages and inflation were most critical, farmers and producers had perfected the devices of withholding supplies from their governments. In addition, in competing for the scant post-war supplies, deficit countries tended to exaggerate the hard domestic situation of their crops and their capacity for food production.[2]

According to the estimates of a report by the United States Department of Agriculture,[3] the calorie value of the world food production had declined at the beginning of 1946 by about five per cent of the global average just before the war. The American experts expressed that if allowance were made for population increase, the per caput production would have declined by about 12 per cent during the war. The decrease was unevenly distributed across the world. Data suggested a similar production or even a slight increase in food production in Asia, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, and an approximate 20 per cent decrease in continental Europe and North Africa, contrasting with a striking increase in the British Islands, which normally, however, produce only about one per cent of the world’s total. North America was the only major producing area that showed a significant increase, accounting for about 30 per cent compared with pre-war figures.

To gain an insight into the seriousness of the food shortage confronting the world in 1946, the amount of production and also the many difficult problems of national and international distribution must be considered. Under those circumstances, it would have been necessary to increase the supply of cereals for human consumption to maintain the calorie intake, by reducing livestock numbers, not only in Europe, where a substantial reduction was in fact brought about during the war, but also in the other parts of the world. From the experts’ point of view, wheat and rice were truly the “stuff of life” of mankind. As regards wheat, practically the whole exportable surplus came from the four chief exporters: the United States, Canada, Australia and Argentina. Production in these countries averaged about 40 million tons for the period 1935-39, versus a little more than 46 million tons in 1945-46. The pre-war production of rice amounted to about 200 million tons, of which about 96 per cent was grown in Asia, and the crop in 1945-46 fell to about 168 million tons, 15 per cent below pre-war levels due to disorganisation that was a consequence of the war. India and China suffered from droughts and great deficits were noted in Japan and former Japan-occupied areas.[4]

However, most of the countries that produced a surplus of cereals increased the feeding of them to their livestock population, in some cases substantially increasing their number during the war. When the war came to an end, most of these countries liberalised or abolished rationing. As a result, it proved impossible for important food exporting countries to meet more than a part of the import requirements of deficit areas. Although it was impossible to obtain exact estimates of export surplus and import requirements, and absolute quantities that depended on variable circumstances such as the standard of consumption adopted, international experts’ boards estimated a world deficit of nine to 10 million tons, especially considering that wheat demands rose as a consequence of the fall in the Asiatic rice crop. Exportable supplies amounted to less than 60 per cent of the stated requirements.

In 1946 a report of the Economic and Financial Department of the League of Nations pointed out the following:

In spite of belated efforts to meet these requirements, it is, at the moment of

writing, clear that famine cannot altogether be averted. The Emergency Committee for Europe has estimated that approximately 100 million people in Europe will receive less than 1,500 calories a day, and of these many, particularly in Germany, Austria and Hungary, are already receiving 1,000 or less. In India, the cereal crop is short by about 8 million tons, and a large part of the city population is existing on rations of 1,000 calories a day or less. With recent allocation of wheat it is possible that further widespread deterioration will be avoided. In China, acute local famines are reported, but transport obstacles make adequate relief extremely difficult. In Japan, as well, famine conditions will develop unless large imports materialize.[5]

The serious sharpening of the food crisis at the beginning of 1946 was partly due to unforeseeable circumstances and partly to overconsumption in the first half of the crop year based on optimistic prospects. The war had left behind a serious disequilibrium between supply and demand, which could have been overcome only by a strict application of an economy of food controls, something dropped by most countries wishing to go back to normality after the war. Crops were by and large divided between human and animal consumption. However, a number of crop calories were used to feed animals and only a part of them was returned in the form of animal foodstuffs fit for human consumption. Hence, when total crops decreased, human consumption could be maintained within certain limits by diverting feed grain from animals to humans. In that case, a reduction in livestock was needed and a more vegetarian diet implemented. In many Asian countries, but also in eastern and southern European countries, during the post-war period, the diet was completely vegetarian and the deficit could not be made up for other than through increased imports. While consumption levels were barely maintained or declined in Eastern Europe, Germany and Italy, food consumption increased in Western Europe.

On the other hand, international food relief to the liberated areas had been severely hit by the food crisis. The Fourth session of the UNRRA Council (Atlantic City, March 1946) recommended that where livestock numbers had been drastically reduced efforts should be made to rehabilitate livestock herds, in spite of shortages of human food. A series of recommendations were passed, such as: the elimination of any avoidable food waste; the diversion of maximum quantities of grain to direct human consumption and the consequent reduction in livestock numbers; the raising of the rates of extraction in the milling of cereals; and the diversion of fats from industrial use to food use. In addition, the experts in nutrition recommended more efficiency in the procurement of foods from farmers and a continuation of rationing policies as a positive way to regulate food production and distribution, regulating prices and consumption. According to John Lindberg’s report for the League of Nations, such measures were feasible in the surplus areas, but they were not likely to yield appreciable results in the deficit regions, where waste was rare, inflation rampant and the administration structure not efficient in the managing of the situation.[6]

Farmers demanded an increasing supply of consumers’ goods as an inducement to part with their food. In the spring of 1946 the rate of extraction in the milling of cereals had been generally increased to levels similar to those prevailing during the war, or even higher. Sweden, in addition to food exports of about 400,000 tons between 1944-46, had voluntarily given up import contracts for about 100,000 tons of wheat and rye. But it was in the United Kingdom, the greatest importer of food in the world, that the conservation policy had been most energetically pursued. Controls of food production and distribution continued after the war and in some cases rations were lowered. Moreover, import requirements were scaled down, with a reduction of nearly 30 per cent. From the summer of 1945 the United Kingdom exported 80,000 tons of cereals to continental Europe, drastically reducing the bulk stocks held by the Ministry of Food.[7] A nation-wide campaign to save still non-rationed bread and the milling extraction rates was implemented, and feed rations to animals stood at a sixth of the pre-war average levels.

In France, bread was once again rationed in January 1946, and the extraction rate of cereals was raised to 90 per cent. According to experts on the political economy of food, the deciding factor in the world food balance was rather to be found in the surplus countries, particularly in the United States, and their capacity to fulfill their export commitments, let alone surpass them. Except for Argentina, most surplus countries had introduced the rationing of animal food produce during the war, which resulted in the evaluation of the expansion of animal production. After the war, when the world’s heavy needs for wheat and quality foods had become apparent, the eating by animals of the scarce cereal supplies continued at an accelerated rate. Rationing of food, except sugar, was rapidly lifted in the USA, and the consumption of animal food continued above wartime levels. At the beginning of 1946 it had become evident that the rate of grain consumption by livestock would render it almost impossible for the USA to meet its export commitments.[8] In order to achieve the goals, a Famine Emergency Committee was created, under the Chairmanship of former President Hoover, to plan and implement the steps to reduce domestic food consumption. In other supply countries, such as Canada and Australia, measures to prevent the expansion of domestic consumption of animal products were to be taken too. The Canadian government introduced food saving campaigns as well as meat rationing in October 1945.

Globally considered, the situation in the surplus countries in 1946 was very pessimistic with regard to their commitments on food production and exports. The situation was so serious that is was virtually impossible to make a forecast of the coming crops. There was no reason or evidence to believe that the productivity of European agriculture was going to recover and increase rapidly. “The disorganization of transport and administration and the lack of fertilizers, machinery and draught power are cumulative in effect”.[9] A serious crop failure, in the absence of any reserve stocks, would have been catastrophic and, to prevent this threat, the experts recommended conservation measures.

From May 20 to 27, 1946, an international conference called by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization met in Washington DC to discuss global measures to tackle the most urgent food problems. The emergency programme for food conservation was based on the following recommendations: 1) Raising the extraction of wheat flour to a minimum of 85 per cent where lower rates were applied; 2) Stretching the supply of wheat flour by at least five per cent admixture of flour from other grains or from potatoes; 3) Limiting the use of grain for alcoholic beverages and “other non essential purposes”; 4) Maximum diversion of grain and potatoes from feed use to human consumption, while giving priority to milk herds and draught animals in whatever feeding of coarse grains that may be necessary; 5) Reduction of grainabsorbing and quality-meat production; 6) Reduction of food waste; 7) Reduction of Government stocks of food; 8) Taking steps to render it possible to put direct rationing of bread into effect at short notice, whenever this proved to be necessary. The Conference also recommended the setting up of an international research and information service to survey and report quarterly on the world food situation. It also proposed the creation of the International Emergency Food Council to carry on the work of the Combined Food Board, to be initially composed of representatives of those 20 nations with a presence on the Board.

  • [1] [Lindberg, J.], 1946
  • [2] Ibidem, p. 72.
  • [3] World Food Situation 1946, Washington, US Department of Agriculture, February,1946.
  • [4] [Lindberg, J.], 1946, p. 74.
  • [5] Ibidem, p. 6.
  • [6] Ibidem, p. 77.
  • [7] Ibidem.
  • [8] United States Department of Agriculture, Production and Marketing AdministrationPress Release, March 16th, 1946.
  • [9] [Lindberg, J.], 1946, p. 80.
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