Food Production in the First World War
At the beginning of the First World War Britain was 60 per cent reliant on imports for food supplies and other commodities such as fuel and fertilisers and on August 4 1914 it is said that Britain had enough wheat to last for only 125 days. At that time 78 per cent of wheat and flour 40 per cent of meat were imported. Herbert Asquith’s Liberal Government was in power and it operated a ‘business as usual’ approach to food production, believing that the war would be over by Christmas. However, panic buying set in after news of the war broke and the Government reacted by passing the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) on 8 August 1914, which, amongst others things, awarded the Government wide-ranging powers such as the requisitioning of buildings or land needed for the war effort.
On 18 August 1914, the Government called on farmers to increase the production of food and the area of agricultural land under wheat and cereal production. At the same time, Government did not want the number of livestock to decrease and it wanted to avoid the slaughter of immature and breeding stock to protect meat supplies. However, a large proportion of animal feed was imported and the Government wanted cereals prioritised for human consumption. Available animal feed was prioritised for the dairy industry and horses that belonged to the War Office. This meant that there was a reduced amount of feed available for feeding other livestock.
Realising that Britain was not producing enough food to feed the nation, the Government continued to look overseas and established new contracts for supplies from across the world. The Board of Trade secured new contracts on 28 August 1914 for meat supplies with Australia, New Zealand and South America. It also began to build up a reserve of wheat and control the Indian grain crop. The war continued past Christmas but the Government was still slow to react to the potential threat to food security. Asquith’s Government appointed a new President of the Board of Agriculture, Lord Selborne, in May 1915. He was a forward thinker and a strong advocate of increasing domestic food production and offering guaranteed prices for cereals. He took steps to assess how the country could increase food production assuming that the war continued past the 1916 harvest and in June 1915 he appointed a number of committees to look into this. Lord Milner, the chair for the England committee concluded that ‘the only method of effecting a substantial increase in the gross production of food in England and Wales for the harvest of 1916 and later consists in restoring to arable cultivation some of the poorer grassland that has been laid down since the 1870s’. This led to the “ploughing up campaign”.
By September 1916 the German U-boat campaign was beginning to have a significant impact on food supplies. On 9 October 1916, the Royal Commission on the Wheat Supply formed. The War Office made the next move introducing guaranteed prices for Irish oats on 24 November 1916 to protect the food supply for horses. A change in government saw a change in attitude and food policies. On 7 December 1916, a coalition government came into power with David Lloyd George as Prime Minister and Rowland Prothero as the new President of the Board of Agriculture. The Ministry of Food was created in December 1916 under the New Ministries and Secretaries Act 1916. Lord Devonport was appointed Food Controller to regulate the supply and consumption of food and to stimulate domestic food production.
In 1917, a Food Production Department was established by the Board of Agriculture to manage the distribution of agricultural of labour, feed fertiliser and machinery to increase the output of crops. Replacing lost labour proved difficult as many of the men working on farms had enlisted; the Board and the War Office had to cooperate. In the same year the War Office released men to help with the spring cultivation and harvest and the Women’s Land Army was formed to provide extra labour on farms; The Corn Production Act was implemented guaranteeing minimum prices of wheat and oats; a minimum wage was specified for agricultural workers and the Agricultural Wages Board was established to ensure stability for farmers and farm workers. Government stopped looking overseas for solutions and policy shifted towards increasing the output of domestic food production and aimed to reduce the dependence on imports.
To help with a lack of labour the Ministry of Munitions became responsible for the production and distribution of agricultural machinery in a bid to increase the number of motor tractors used on farm. However there were delays to this project as the Army demands for metals, chemicals and railways for transportation took priority. It was not until 1918 that compulsory rationing was introduced to manage the distribution of food. By 1918, there were government controls placed on almost all aspects of farming; the Food Controller bought all essential food supplies and the Corn Production Act guaranteed prices for farmers. Overall, the ploughing up campaign was a success with around 2.5 million acres of pasture turned over to arable production. Farmers rose to the challenge and were able to increase their output of vital crops such as wheat, oats and potatoes despite labour, feed, machinery and fertiliser shortages.Source: Article by Laura Stearman with supporting research from Dr John Martin, De Montfort University for the NFU