Waves of Grain: How World War II Created Our World

“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, “…it 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.”

Our Fragile Era of Abundance — for Some

At any given time the world produces more than enough food to feed every person on the planet a healthy diet. The problem is that the food is continually in the wrong place. The problems of food surplus can be as much of an issue as food shortage. When there’s a surplus food prices are forced lower, resulting in less profit for the farmer which can have the effect of either lowering the amount planted in following years or worse, lowering prices further as farmers plant more and more in an attempt to make a profit on an ever cheaper product.

As a result, one year a country will produce a bumper crop, driving prices down which leads to less planting the following year which will then drive prices up. Include in this the ever-worsening cycles of worldwide drought and a situation like the one we have today is created where rich countries can weather the storm of crop fluctuations but poor countries go hungry despite what has generally been a worldwide food surplus.

This is not an unsolvable problem. Immediately after the war an Englishman named John Boyd Orr envisioned a world market for wheat that, if implemented, would have not only eliminated the problems of starvation in times of plenty (think of every African famine story you’ve read erased from history) but also encouraged worldwide cooperation and trade. As result of this plan, Boyd Orr won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949. The US, UK and Russia originally agreed to it and established the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Tragically, the plan was scuttled due to the US’s and UK’s fear that they would lose their ability to import cheap food sources and Boyd Orr resigned from the FAO (he went on to make a fortune in the stock market). As the US settled into the Cold War with the Soviet Union, hope for worldwide cooperation on food production vanished.

It’s astounding to look back and realize that at one time there was a chance for worldwide cooperation in feeding the planet’s people. While the Second World War restructured Europe, US and Japan into separate systems of centralized government control of the economy, it did little to lift the rest of the world out of poverty. The choice of the US and UK’s post-war leadership to pursue the short-sighted strategy of advancing their own country’s wealth was ultimately tragic. The entire world was poised to be remade; instead the thread of peace passed quietly through civilization’s fingertips.

What is poorly understood is that capital has a tendency towards monopoly. What ultimately created a middle class in the US was the more even distribution of wealth created after the war. Not necessarily through taxation, though that was part of it (the highest tax bracket in 1950 was 91 percent), but through programs like the GI Bill, massive farm subsidies, and nationwide infrastructure investments. These helped the US not only grow but in the truest sense of the American Dream, opportunity began to equalize.

But those days are long gone. It costs a small fortune to attend college in the US nowadays and it’s only getting worse. The cost of going to a public university is a good indicator of the cost of living increases placed on the middle and lower classes. In inflation-adjusted dollars it cost $8,756 to attend a public four-year university (inclusive of room and board) in 1980, not necessarily considered halcyon days in the US. A student attending the same university in 2011 paid $15,605.

The reason for the price increases are simple: State and Federal government in the US no longer pay what they used to. The days which are looked back on as nostalgic in the US are eroding faster and faster because of a reluctance to look at their root cause: the wealthiest members of society paid more because as their wealth increased, they gained an ever increasing advantage. As the years go by and the wealthy pay less and less, there is a corresponding debasement as the institutions that made the US what it was after World War II are defunded.

Seemingly only through emergency can the US, and much of the western world, do anything to change the collective slide towards atavism. However, in the next 20-30 years we may have another opportunity to recreate that more balanced world. Just as Germany and Japan saw war as their only opportunity to economically and socially stabilize their nations, China will soon be faced with a similar dilemma. It might not come in the form of war, but a breaking point will be reached and if history is our guide, a preemptive, peaceful, and intelligent solution will not be reached. Things will have to get bad, first.

The evidence is clear: nothing has changed since 1939; whoever controls food is still king. China, as it sees per capita incomes rise, is importing more and more food and significantly affecting the agriculture market (India and Indonesia are as well, but to a lesser extent). This is due to an increased demand for meat in China, which takes a huge amount of plant-based calories to raise. To put this in perspective, in 1995 China produced and consumed 14 million tons of soybeans. In 2010, they produced 14 million tons but consumed 69 million tons. According to the Washington Post, this has fundamentally remade agriculture in the United States by transforming what was once a wheat producing country into a soy producing country. The rest of the world is following suit as well; Brazil and Argentina are quickly approaching soybean monocultures as China is now purchasing 60 percent of the world’s soybean market.

There is a certain spin that can be put on this news, and the ever-increasing demand for food coming from the East. China, a country where per capita income is still only $8,500US per year (121st in the world) is increasing its standard of living. What could be wrong with that? Unfortunately there are 2.5 billion people in the world who live on less than $2.50US a day. As food prices rise and developed country’s surpluses no longer make it into the poor’s stomachs, famine, as history has shown us, will be the inevitable outcome.

But won’t productivity rise as demand increases? It isn’t likely. Worldwide food production must increase 70 per cent by 2050 to keep pace with world population growth. That is the equivalent of another food productivity revolution which occurred as a result of World War II. With arable land in the western world approaching its maximum, fertilizer effectiveness dwindling, and the extreme depletion of once-rich soils, the outlook for productivity increase is nil. China itself is already producing at maximum capacity, and is seeing agricultural productivity continue to fall as environmental collapse, including desertification, takes its toll on crop production. Additionally, the stage may be being set for conflict as China is purchasing land in nearby countries on which to grow crops. What will happen when those countries can’t feed their own people?

During World War II the US consented to feed the world, and then taught much of it how to feed itself. We can only hope the next inevitable crisis affords us a similar opportunity.