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Waves of Grain: How World War II Created Our World

Archive photo by Scott Lawrence. Image from the cover of The Taste of War.

World War II changed the way we eat, live and work on such a fundamental scale that to those in the West it seems like there has never been anything other than the globalized world it created.

“We will emerge from this struggle as the dominant power, dominant in naval power, dominant in air power, dominant in industrial capacity, dominant in mineral production, dominant in agricultural production. These are the basic resources of power.”

-- Ralph Watkins of the US National Resources Planning Board, November 1942

“For every four tons of supplies the United States shipped to its ground forces in the Pacific, Japan was able to transport to its own men just two pounds

-- Lizzie Collingham, The Taste of War

The foundation of a civilization, an economy, a community, and a family is its food supply. Food sources in western countries have become so stable that they are almost translucent. More food than we could ever eat (we currently throw away 40 percent of all food) awaits us day after day in our overstuffed grocery stores. The reason for this? 70 years ago western technological society mastered its food supply. That mastery was so complete that for proceeding generations, the continuity of this supply has created the illusion of permanence.

Most people would think that a job, or the ability to make a living, is what provides the basis for stability in their lives -- it allows them to buy food, clothes and shelter. But actually it is food that comes first, and its availability puts in place the foundation that the rest of society is built on.

In Germany, after World War II, many Germans had jobs but were unable to buy food because of currency inflation. Farmers began producing only for themselves since there was no market for their crops. Instead of working in the factories, offices and mines that needed them, the population would instead wander out into the countryside each day, hoping to barter their possessions and labor for food. The economy ground to a halt. Only when they were once again able to buy food in the stores did they return to work.

In Third World countries the experience is similar. Since most of the day is spent dealing with finding food, little can happen within the society in terms of its economy. Subsequently, food should be seen in its rightful place as the first unit of economic and social stability. If its sources within a society are stable and the population can spend its time doing something other than obtaining food, the people will have a solid foundation on which to build their lives, for better or worse. In that sense, food is the first possession, it gives value to all subsequent possessions.

Today’s world of plenty is a relatively new phenomenon. There is only one generation left that remembers hunger as a possibility in the industrialized world, and they are quickly dying off due to old age. World War II took a world that we would barely recognize and remade it into the modern life that we experience today. It’s no exaggeration to say that the entire world really was different before World War II. In 1942 only 24 percet of Americans owned cars per capita, compared with with 83 percent today, television was virtually unheard of prior to WWII with less than one percent of Americans owning a TV in 1942, and many rural districts in the US still did not have electricity. Similarly, in 1940 almost half of Americans lived on farms or in rural areas, compared with less than one quarter today.

What is more astounding is that in the US prior to World War II malnutrition -- a word that is now almost unheard of in the West -- was still a common affliction. In The Taste of War, Lizzie Collingham’s excellent and exhaustively researched book on food’s role in starting and ending World War II, she writes that in the US, “2 out of every five men called up were unfit for military service due to disabilities which were linked to poor nutrition.” She goes on:

"Raging unemployment in the 1930s had swelled the numbers of the destitute and marginalized. America’s commitment to the philosophy of individualism meant that there was no welfare system in place to cushion the fall of the 15 million unemployed men and their families. Millions sold their possessions to make ends meet and millions more were evicted from their homes after failing to pay the rent. Hunger ravaged these families, and when unemployment was at its height in 1933 it became commonplace for people to collapse from hunger in the streets of Chicago."

It has become a truism to say that World War II is what lifted the US -- and the world -- out of the Great Depression. What has been overlooked is that the war fundamentally remade the world by ushering in the era of globalization that we know today. The basic currency of this expansion was food and the US was its main beneficiary. As the US began to export food and farming technology to its various allies around the world, it not only exported rationalized American economic culture, but it remade the system of allegiances and indebtedness that had been in place prior to World War II. Through massive loan and aid programs which would eventually assist most countries throughout the world, the US oriented much of world trade towards itself. When we hear politicians speaking of “American decline”, it is this process which they feel is declining.

In a cause and effect scenario that has important implications for today’s world, and contrary to what is taught in history classes focusing more on personalities than practicalities, food security -- or rather, insecurity -- was perhaps the most important cause of World War II. From a strict energy perspective raising animals for consumption, and especially cattle, results in a massive net loss of energy. It takes three to four times the crop energy to feed cattle than is returned when they are consumed.

From the early 1900s, meat consumption had been rising dramatically across the world and countries like Germany and Japan, which weren’t as large as the US or had an empire as vast as England’s to trade with, were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to feeding their growing populations. According to Collingham, “Right-wing elements within both countries pushed for an alternative, more radical solution to the problem of food and trade. Hitler... looked to an eastern empire as a source of food and other resources which would make Germany self-sufficient and independent of world trade.”

As the lack of food played a central role in starting World War II, it played as big of a role in ending it. When feeding its army in a foreign land a country faces two problems: how to get the food to the troops and how to get them enough of it. Due to constant strenuous activity most soldiers in WWII needed almost twice the amount of food that a normal person required. Only the US was able to supply adequate food to its soldiers and its allies. Japan’s armies eventually starved and Germany’s fared little better. Collingham writes that in Japan, “60 per cent of the 1.74 million [military] losses were due to starvation, not combat,” and in Germany, “ appeared as though hunger was the victor, and that it was starvation among the army and civilians which had brought about a humiliating defeat.”

By 1943 continental Europe’s food output had dropped by 40 percent. By contrast, the US had increased its output by 50 percent.

What allowed the US to win the food war was its ability to increase its arable land. It did this by taking advantage of vastly more efficient farming technology that had been in development in the '30s but because of lack of capital was not widely distributed across the country. The emergency of war and the money it freed up in the form of government loans led to these idling methods of industrial agriculture to become pervasive. DDT was one example: it helped eradicate wireworm, a voracious pest which had not allowed the farming of grasslands.

Besides a massive increase in crop production, this ability to grow crops on land which had been unfarmable resulted in an interesting side-effect: it dramatically decreased the available grazing land for cattle, which resulted in cattle being warehoused in pens. This was the origin of today’s industrial meat production.

As a result of this increase in land on which to farm, and the technology with which to farm it, the US quickly became the world’s largest food producer. The United States was, “the only country to emerge from the war with an agricultural sector strengthened by rationalization and innovation, and thus be in a position of power with regard to food,” Collingham writes. As a result of the war the US still enjoys the distinction of having the most arable land of any country in the world, including China and Russia, at 174,448,000 hectares.

To grow an abundance of food was one thing, but to store if for long periods of time was another. Spoilage during transport was a significant issue prior to WWII. Methods had to be found so that food supplies could survive the trip across the Atlantic and Pacific. Freeze drying, “telescopic” meat packing, industrial canning, and concentrated foods were either developed or perfected during the war. Since these methods allowed for lowered transportation costs and increased shelf life, they were quickly applied to the grocery industry. Look at photos of grocery stores from the 40s and 50s, and you’ll see that not much has changed in 60 years. More importantly, these food preservation methods became the standard way to transport and store food, still used by every country in the world today.

Additionally, these methods not only helped keep food edible for long periods of time, they also helped the industrialized world’s poor and working classes shrug off much of the burden of malnutrition and disease which they had been carrying for centuries. In the UK, because of the massive food shipments from the US which were high in nutritional value, infant mortality rates dropped significantly during the war. Rickets, a nutrient deficiency disease which had been common, was eradicated.

This wasn’t a case of one country being a good samaritan; cooperation on a scale that hasn’t been seen since is what allowed this change from malnutrition to health during a time of war take place. Among the Allies it was quickly seen that each country’s food supply was going to have to be centrally managed if they were going to win the war. An organization called The Combined Food Board was established to manage this. Collingham writes:

"The free market was abandoned in order to achieve maximum efficiency in reorganizing trade. The Combined Food Board co-ordinated the production and distribution of food throughout the Allied world. Responsible for food for more than half the world’s population, and covering agricultural production over two-thirds of the earth’s land mass, it negotiated and co-ordinated agricultural output and trade within and between the United States, Great Britain, its empire and the Commonwealth, the Belgian and French colonies, the Soviet Union, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East."

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