How did Britain tackle the food shortages in World War II and what changes had to be made to Agriculture?

On this Remembrance Day, we look back and remember those who gave their lives for their countries during the World Wars of the 20th century, and we consider the immense changes and adaptations made on the Home Front.

The First World War saw farming revolutionised by the need to adapt to fewer men and less horsepower, and just over 20 years later, the Second World War broke out. How did Britain tackle things this time and what vital adaptations were made to British Farming to feed the nation?

"By 1939, Britain was importing 60% of its food which amounted to around 55 million tonnes a year."

The interwar years were turbulent and volatile for British farming. 1921 saw the overturning of The Agriculture Act, which became known as the ‘Great Betrayal’. The act had guaranteed minimum wage to workers and assured minimum price for produce. When this was repealed, workers saw their wages drop by as much as 40% in a single year. The Government were reluctant to intervene, and when restrictions on importing grain from Canada were lifted, productivity took a serious hit. Rural poverty skyrocketed, and emigration to towns left some farmland lying to waste, even in fertile areas of the country such as Norfolk, and the Great Depression in the early 30s only made things worse. Things were slowly getting better by the late 1930s. However, by 1938, only 5.9% of the population worked in agriculture, down from 12% in 1914. By 1939, Britain was importing 60% of its food which amounted to around 55 million tonnes a year.

Hitler invaded Poland on 1st September 1939, and on 3rd September, it was declared that, along with France, Britain was once again at war. By the end of 1939 food importation had dropped to just 12 million tonnes. Yet again, like in the autumn of 1916, Britain found itself in a situation where something had to be done to prevent the nation from starving.

Rationing

The situation on the Home Front was evaluated, and on 2nd October 1939, a report was submitted by the Minister of Food, detailing how many weeks of supply was held for each commodity.

Commodity  Weeks Supply
Bacon 3.6
Barley 32.2
Butter 1.5
Canned Meat 30.8
Canned Salmon 20
Cheese 6
Flour 12.2
Fresh Meat 4.9
Maize 3.3
Oilseeds and Nuts 4.5
Potatoes About 9.5 months
Sugar 23.7
Tea 22
Whale Oil About 2 years

Rationing was introduced in January 1940. Among the first items to be restricted were butter and bacon, but in the months and years following, more and more items were added to the rationing list. For a typical adult, the weekly ration in 1942 was:    

Commodity  Weekly Allowance
Bacon & Ham 4 oz
Butter 2 oz
Cheese 2 oz
Cooking fat 4 oz
Eggs 1 fresh egg (plus an allowance of dried egg)
Margarine 4 oz
Milk 3 pints
Other meat Value of 1 shilling & 2 pence (equivalent to 2 chops)
Preserves 1 lb every 2 months
Sugar 8 oz
Sweets 12 oz every 4 weeks
Tea 2 oz

The Government knew that serious action needed to be taken to increase food production to prevent the nation and those at the front from going hungry. In the first two years of the war, 50,000 skilled farm workers left home to serve in the army, leaving a huge gap in the workforce. So, the Government introduced several schemes to bolster the amount of food being produced on the Home Front.

The Women’s Land Army

The Women’s Land Army (WLA) was reformed in the summer of 1939. Many women of all ages joined up and were later conscripted. At its peak in 1944, 80,000 land girls were working across the UK. Lady Gertrude Denman, Director of the WLA, once said, “The land army fights in the fields. It is in the fields of Britain that the most critical battle of the present war may well be fought and won”. Women undertook all aspects of farm work, including livestock handling, dairy, flax growing (for clothing), hedging, vegetable growing, ploughing, threshing and lumber-jilling. 

"The land army fights in the fields. It is in the fields of Britain that the most critical battle of the present war may well be fought and won."

Land Reclamation

To boost food production levels in the UK, the land area to produce that food needed to be increased. Before the war, arable land covered about 9 million acres, 16 million acres were under grass, and a further 5 million were rough grazing. Whilst the storm clouds were gathering over Europe in May 1939, farmers were offered grant aid and additional slag subsidy to add lime to their soil, which resulted in an additional 350,000 acres being ploughed up. In the first two years of the war, over 4 million acres were ploughed up. The priority was getting as much food out of each acre as possible. One acre growing potatoes could feed up to 40 people, wheat 20 people, whereas areas of permanent grazing for animal fodder could only feed around 2 people. One of the biggest reclamation schemes took place in East Anglia, where thousands of acres of fenland were drained to make it suitable for farming, and the WLA played a vital part in these projects.

Digging for Victory

Victory Gardens were encouraged by the Government and saw wasteland up and down the country turned towards vegetable production. The grass on the sides of railways, lawns, sports grounds and racecourses such as Nottingham were turned into vegetable beds. Areas of Hyde Park and around the Albert Memorial were ploughed up. At the instigation of George VI, both Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle had vegetable gardens planted to assist with food production.

War Agricultural Executive Committees

War Agricultural Executive Committees, or War Ags as they became known, were set up by the Government to increase productivity. Throughout the war, 61 War Ags were established and included local farmers and the Women’s Institute members. These committees had to ensure that the Government’s ploughing up policy was being adhered to. They had the power to tell farmers which fields needed to be cultivated, take farms away, and manage them themselves if they felt they were not appropriately handled. War Ags also encouraged modernisation on farms, which drove productivity as farms adopted new machinery and methods.

"In 1939 56,000 tractors were being used on farms up and down the country. By 1940 there were over 100,000."

Farm Workers

The Government wanted to ensure that farmworkers were not as scarce as they had been during the First World War. Therefore in 1940, after 50,000 farmworkers had joined up, farming was declared a reserved occupation by the Restrictions of Engagement Order, which meant that any farmworker who wanted to join the army had to be replaced before they could leave. There was also a movement to bring more workers into the industry. Therefore, the unemployed and conscientious objectors were sent to work on farms alongside the WLA, and by 1945 there were also 57,763 prisoners of war working on farms. By the end of the war, farmworkers felt so secure in their occupation that the membership of the National Union of Farmworkers rose from 33,000 in 1939 to 100,000 in 1945.

Machinery

At the start of the war, there were still 600,000 working horses on farms across Britain. Unlike the First World War, which saw over 1 million horses requisitioned by the army, only 6,500 horses were used in the Second World War, and their role was non-combative. However, horses were going out of favour as tractors were faster, more reliable, and more powerful and saw a rapid increase in popularity. In 1939 56,000 tractors were being used on farms up and down the country. By 1940 there were over 100,000 as the new machines became accessible to more farms due to War Ags stepping in and helping them to purchase them.

The Second World War was seen by many as a new age for British agriculture. Farming was a priority industry and was given all the technology, subsidy, and support needed to thrive and feed the nation. This shows that when appropriately supported by the Government, farms can adopt new strategies and access the right technology. In this way Britain can be more self-sufficient, farming can be more profitable and food production increases.    


Sources

Max Roser (2013) - Employment in Agriculture. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/employment-in-agriculture

The National Archives (n.d.) - The Agriculture Act, depression and subsidy. Published online at The Cabinet Papers. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/agriculture-act-depression-subsidy.htm

Stephen Wilson (n.d.) - Rationing in World War Two. Published online at History UK. Retrieved from: https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Rationing-in-World-War-Two/

Minister of Food (2nd October 1939) - Food Situation of the United Kingdom. Published online by The National Archives. Retrieved from: http://filestore.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pdfs/small/cab-68-1-wpr-39-12-12.pdf

Virtual Library (10th March 2014) - Farming in England and Wales at the beginning of the Second World War. Published online by Virtual Library. Retrieved from: https://virtual-library.culturalservices.net/webingres/bedfordshire/vlib/0.wla/wla_bedfordshire_war_ag_farming.htm

Olde Curiosity (23rd February 2015) - WW2 Farming in Britain During the Second World War. Published online by Blogspot. Retrieved from: http://oldecuriosity.blogspot.com/2015/02/ww2-farming-in-britain-during-second.html

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