Wednesday, 3 August 2016
The Food Problem
Part VII of ‘England in Arms’
By W. Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, November 1917
To date the problem faced in the feeding of the people of the British Isles is not that of food shortage, but of food distribution. To the foreigner that assertion may seem to deprive the situation of most of its seriousness; to us who live through it and watch its development therein lies more menace than in the expressed hopes of the Kaiser. British ingenuity may be depended upon more confidently to overcome the enemy than to alter internal affairs in order to cope with unusual conditions. Nothing is so powerful against the Englishman as his habits and system.
No one in the British Isles has felt the pinch of hunger. And it is not likely that anyone will. What suffering there has been arises from the temporary shortage of unessentials and from high prices. Sugar and potatoes sum up the total of national deprivations owing to the war, and never did they approach privations because there has always been something to take their places. Before there is actual want the British will have solved the submarine. But after three years of a situation that has continually pointed to food as one of the vital factors in the winning of victory they are only now nearing the solution of a situation with which the enemy has nothing to do—which is, indeed, indigenous to the British race, but more particularly to that section of it residing in England and Scotland.
The problem of distribution is twofold. The limitation of supplies—rather the necessity of conserving for an uncertain future—demands an equality of distribution that ignored individuals and class. The second difficulty is the British character—an independence which resents control and dictation. Of the two the latter was the more immediately dangerous at the beginning of the conservation movement. But common sense is asserting itself, so that equality of distribution now occupies the time of the Food Controller. When he found temperance in eating to be so necessary as to justify Government action, the Englishman yielded to a pressure which he naturally resists. But having yielded, he was forced to set to work on the national system of class favouritism—as, indeed, he has been forced to do in every problem connected with the war.
It was Britain’s unquestioned command of the seas that delayed food measures which were reasonable from the very first gun. That inbred and time-honoured confidence in victory laid a heavy hand on reasonable provision and prevision in every act of war. In the matter of food arbitrary measures did not seem to be necessary early in the struggle. Depending entirely, as it did, on the control of the seas, Great Britain was justified in her confidence, a confidence that would never have been shaken had the Germans adhered to the rules of warfare.
One measure only was taken early in the war to protect the food supply of the British Isles, an obvious one immediately demanded by the fact that they had been procuring more than sixty per cent. of their sugar from Germany. A Sugar Commission was appointed. Thereafter, for more than two years, even when the casual onlooker was viewing the situation with alarm and the Asquith Government itself was talking much of plans in the House, nothing further was done. Always in the mind of the people was the thought that the enemy could not drive Great Britain to defensive measures that would reflect upon its special sphere of power; and in the mind of the Government was the hope that political balances need not be disturbed by restrictive action certain to be resented in some quarters. For it must not be imagined that party aims and hopes disappeared with the formation of a Coalition Cabinet.
The second official move of importance was made in October, 1916, when a Wheat Commission undertook to readjust the grain situation. Unfortunately it was weighted down with the Asquith love of laisser-faire, and its duties never materialized into effective action. At a time when the enemy was openly sinking merchant vessels and threatening more, when the demands of military operations and national supply were so deflecting shipping from the ordinary channels of food transportation that reserves of grain in the British Isles were being seriously depleted, no action was taken towards replenishing these supplies from a world’s production that was above the normal. America and Australia were offering the grain, but England was not willing to disturb the trend of affairs in order to facilitate the acceptance of the offers.
The press of England was becoming alive to the menace, and the English press has a voice more powerful than that of its brother across the ocean. The people were growing anxious. The difficulty of securing sugar was impressing even the thoughtless with the need for action. Mr. Asquith was forced to promise operations which were loathsome to him, not alone for their antagonism to his policy, but for the danger he well saw would arise therefrom to his personal popularity. He announced the establishment of a new department headed by a Food Controller. It promised well. But the Food Controller was never appointed. Week after week the country waited. Mr. Asquith was at his best in his promises of what that important official would do—in his explanations of the delay. He was at his most natural in his inability to come to the point of action.
It was the accumulation of such dilatory acts as these that brought about his downfall. Just three days before an anxious Cabinet, backed by a roused people, demanded his resignation, Mr. Runciman, one of his Ministers, placed before the country one lone food measure that even then looked like a small mouse for the mountain to bring forth. Restrictions were placed on restaurant fare—or rather attempted restrictions. Luncheon was to be a two-course meal and the ample English restaurant dinner was to be limited to three courses.
With that heritage Lloyd George assumed power. His first discovery in connection with the food situation was that his predecessor had taken no inventory of the nation’s supplies, had made no move to simplify the work of the Food Department, which had immediately to be organized. One of the first officials appointed in the new Government was a Food Controller, Lord Devonport, a man whose intimate connection with food supply as the head of a large multiple store company seemed to qualify him for the position. It was a disappointment to the country and to the Premier himself that the seeming qualifications for the Controller’s office should in the end prove the insuperable obstacle to his effectiveness. Lord Devonport introduced many measures intended to cope with a situation passing rapidly into a serious stage, but a calm survey of them discovers them to be, after all, paltry, a mere touching of the surface.
Lord Devonport took pleasure in vetoing the Runciman restaurant order four months after it had been put into effect, and almost the same time after its folly had become evident. The limited course meal brought only one result, that diners ate more solid meat, and less of the odds and ends, the entrees and unessentials and make-overs, that give the daintiest touch to restaurant fare without affecting food stocks. Men formerly content with a small helping of meat in the interests of the decorative courses, demanded meat and bread and cheese, the basis of subsistence. The new Food Controller, too, was forced to deal with bread, tea, confectionery, potatoes and other vegetables, and sugar.
His substitute for the Runciman restaurant control was a meatless day and a limitation of the amounts of meat, bread and sugar served at each meal. This was later altered because of its drain on bread in order to take the place of meat on the meatless day. Bread he attempted to regulate by prohibiting its sale until twelve hours after baking, and by limiting its shape, weight and constituents. The adulteration of flour by maize or rice, and the prohibition of the waste that produces white flour, resulted in what is known as war bread. It was an effective measure, despite the continued opposition of the people. Tea—considered in England almost as great a food necessity as bread—was regulated in its cheaper qualities. A curb was put on the use of sugar in confectionery, pastry and icing. In the early part of 1917 potatoes were passing so rapidly into the list of shortages that price limitation was necessary. Three cents a pound for old stock was established for the early months, rising later a half-cent. But no measures could increase the supply, and no attempt was made to prevent the farmers holding their stocks for higher prices. For months it might be said there were no potatoes in England. And with the failure of potatoes the vegetable substitutes advanced until the Food Controller was forced to limit the price of some of them.
Where Lord Devonport failed was in his reluctance to take a firm stand, to enforce the law, and principally to curtail the profits of the trader. He attempted to solve the problem by appeal. A chart of patriotic proportions in the daily diet was flung at the public in a thousand ways. The fences were covered with it, the newspapers gave it daily space, lecturers flooded the country, and, at a time when the shortage of paper was serious, the workingmen’s pay envelopes were crammed with a literature he never read. To the credit of the country the consumption of bread and meat materially decreased. But the two insuperable obstacles to success were the inability of ninety per cent. of the people to purchase the advised ration of sugar and the eagerness of some to seize the opportunity for gorging. While there were millions willing to curb their appetites there were flaunting thousands of pro-German sympathies or utter carelessness whose delight it was to evade the appeal and the laws. And at the very time when the people were begged to stint themselves interned and imprisoned Germans were allowed many times the ration; sugar and potatoes were being commandeered for them when the workers of the country had to go without. The inconsistencies of the situation were intolerable, and the effectiveness of the appeal diminished weekly.
In the matter of enforcing the law there was singular laxness. Here and there a dealer was fined, although it was impossible to go on the streets without seeing plainly advertised infractions of the food laws. And the fine was usually but a small part of the profit made from the illicit transaction. Indeed, there was apparent, in store and home and restaurant, a merry revelry of law evasion that undid the patriotism of those who honestly rationed themselves.
Profiteering went on without restriction. Lord Devonport, head of a big grocery concern, persisted in refusing to limit the profits of grocers save in a few glaring and insignificant cases. Swedes, for instance, the substitute for potatoes, were limited in price to three cents a pound, a price so many times what the farmer and greengrocer had been receiving that neither could complain. The setting of prices for potatoes and beans was much advertised but unimportant, for both disappeared from the market almost immediately. Although the cost of bread to miller and baker was materially decreased by the new laws, the price advanced instantly to the consumer two to four cents a four-pound loaf. While a few bakers outside London were content with the profits from seventeen-cent bread, the London baker charged twenty-four. The attempt to democratize tea was a failure. Forty per cent. of the importations were to be sold to the public at fifty-two and fifty-six cents, but no one was ever able to purchase a pound of the cheaper price, to my knowledge, and if the better quality of Government tea was inquired for it was either out of stock or sneered at by the grocer. Neither price was ever displayed in the windows during Lord Devonport’s term. The same happened with cheese. A large part of it was taken over by the Government to be sold over the counter for thirty-two cents, but it never appeared on the shelves of more than a very few stores.
With meat no attempt was made to interfere until the last days of Lord Devonport’s office, and then only the speculator was eliminated, the retailer being permitted to ask what he pleased. Of the retailers the butcher was the most heartless profiteer, the consumer being asked sixty to one hundred and fifty per cent. profit over the wholesale prices. Even the supplies controlled by the Government, such as New Zealand mutton, were turned loose upon arrival in England for the wholesaler and retailer to make what profit he wished. Laid down in London by the Government at thirteen cents, it reached the public at thirty-six to sixty cents. The butcher could not buy it without a large purchase of English mutton at extravagant prices. And in the meantime, in order to maintain the level of prices, tons of meat were left to rot on the docks.
There is no better example of the injudicious and unfair distribution of supplies than sugar, the commodity that has induced several crises already. To the people the only result of the Sugar Commission was an immediate rise in price. Against this there has been constant complaint, for it is known that the rise represented taxation and Government profit. It was not until the latter part of 1916 that a shortage began seriously to be felt; but from the first pinch the shortage increased until stocks seemed to have disappeared from the market, so far as the poorer classes were concerned. By December women were walking the streets from shop to shop begging half-pounds. Queues had not then commenced, because sugar was the only shortage and the grocer sold only to whom he liked.
It is this independence of the merchant that has driven home to the country the disaster of typical official control, so called. Each week the Sugar Commission released to the wholesalers their shares of the available supplies, and washed their hands of any further connection with the commodity. Theoretically the wholesaler was supposed to pass on to the grocer his share, but that he had favourites is proved by the fact that some of the large West End stores seemed never to be without sugar, while the small grocer of the East End was denied a pound. It must be remembered that every pound of sugar shipped to England was Government-controlled. No control whatever was exercised over the retailer save in the matter of price, and the shortage of the available supplies enabled him to make sugar the basis of his trade. He sold to whom he pleased in the quantities he pleased. His independence became impudence. A customer was always a beggar, for he was entirely at the mercy of his grocer. Sugar was denied those who could not afford to make their purchases extravagant. Some system seemed to arrive with the demand for a purchase of fifty cents’ worth of other goods with each half-pound or pound of sugar, and this was accepted by the authorities as a wise provision against wasteful purchases of the limited commodity. It was the strength of class in England that for many months prevented the authorities from realizing that such a stipulation reserved sugar for the rich who could afford to buy supplies they did not need in order to obtain the sugar they did. It was only when the merchants began to extend the same demand to the purchase of other foodstuffs that the Government forbade any conditions with the sale of sugar. But the grocer was still left to sell to whom he pleased. No improvement whatever resulted, since the grocer simply refused to sell until another large order was given.
The cry of the poor—the long, hopeless queues, the untrained cooks helpless to provide for their large families without that which had made up such a large part of their food—was pitiful. And all the time the West End shops were selling it in fifty-pound lots or less. The Government’s loose effort to enable fruit-growers to preserve their fruit was equally unfair. The growers sent in their requirements, and the sugar was released to the grocer mentioned in the requisition, but without any control over the amount he passed on to the grower. Of four friends, no two received the same proportion of that which they had asked for, the amount varying from fifty to ninety per cent. No one knows what the grocer should have given out. The latest measure in the handling of sugar, to come into force in October, is a form of card supply, but still there is no safeguard that the grocer will sell to his customers their individual shares of the available supplies.
The clamorous protest arising was more than threatening. Lord Devonport accepted the inevitable and resigned. Lord Rhondda assumed the thankless job. It is typical of English public life that only a titled man is considered competent to undertake public work. The war has introduced a Geddes or two; others will have to follow. Particularly unfortunate in the matter of controlling resources is this habit, since these wealthy titled men are so closely concerned in a financial way with the industries and commerce of the country that unprejudiced outlook is nigh to impossible. Lord Rhondda had made good in his first Government office and in private life, and initiative was not lacking. His misfortune was that he was appointed at a time when public impatience would not brook delay. Without time to study the situation and devise methods he was driven to instant action. The result was a hundred more or less vague promises that seemed to fit in with the demands of the people, and one act only of the immediate future. Profiteering was the bête noire of the people, and on profiteering he came out strong—in word. Thus far there is only the promise that profiteering will be punished by imprisonment. Speculation is to be stopped, how is not apparent. Lord Devonport had already issued orders to that effect in the case of meat without affecting much the price to the consumer. The only definite act which would tend to soothe the people was an obvious expedient. It dealt with the commodity most familiar to the table—bread. Bread was ordered to be sold—some time in the future—at eighteen cents a quartern loaf.
Realizing that the British Isles might be called upon to depend upon their own resources, he turned to the farmer. Land was tilled that had never been broken for centuries, and the farmer became a real producer. If he didn’t, there was a law to take his land from him temporarily. Ploughing was done by tractor, night and day and Sundays. The added crop acreage was expected to amount to millions, but lack of tractors and help and quick co-operation reduced the amount to less than half a million acres. Next year the millions are promised. Allotments sprang up everywhere—vacant lots, golf links, railway tracks, parks. London alone is producing eight hundred extra acres of vegetables. The additional growth has reduced the price of potatoes for the moment to less than it was before the war; and the absence of market organization is leaving tons to rot, England was driven to act before she could complete the organization necessary to reap the greatest reward.
The solution does not yet appear. If the submarine continues even its present success, and the measures of the future do not improve substantially on those of the past, the British Isles will feel want. Private profits, private shipping, block all the Government can do. The controlling influences of supply and demand are non-existent in time of war. With Government interference they lost almost all their power, in all justice. To continue that power is to exploit the Government of the people at the cost of the people. To-day the old tenet of the economist means nothing more, in the case of importations, than to ask the people, at their own expense, to make trade possible by import regulations and transportation protection, and then to expect them to pay the trader according to the volume and expense of that protection. And locally-grown products are directly dependent for price, especially in England, on the available stocks from without.
The stopping of profiteering is a pleasant ambition to talk about but an over-lofty one to anticipate. Profiteering does not end with the grocer and butcher, the wholesaler and shipper. It has entered into every phase of home life. Only the man in khaki, who assumes all the risk of war, is precluded from it. The workingman, the clerk, the farmer, the thousands of Government officials who have risen with the war—even the Government itself—are profiting from the war. But the burden is uneven. The workingman of England can present a good defence in terms of comparative wage scale, but in terms of total receipt—which is the basis of his living—he might be called a profiteer. His five pence an hour of pre-war days may have increased only sixty per cent., while living has advanced one hundred; but his week’s envelope contains probably three times—often six and ten times—what it did before the war. The decreased facilities for drink and idleness keep him longer at work, and the additions of bonus and overtime are not infrequently greater than his regular wage.
The next article of this series will discuss the elaborate plans being made in England for the conservation of materials.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.