In the summer of 1954, the UK celebrated the end of 14 years of rationing. Within a few months of the start of the Second World War, every adult and child had been issued with a ration book to manage drastic food shortages. Even then we were dependent on imported food but as the merchant fleet was transferred over to war service and vessels, ports and warehouses came under attack, food supplies were threatened.
64 years later and our imported food supply is in the news again – this summer we’re hearing about government stockpiling food as a precaution for a No Deal or Hard Brexit. Early in August the NFU warned that, if the UK was dependent on its own food supplies from 1 January, we would run out on 7 August. This came in the same week that the founders of Fever Tree, the posh flavoured tonic, celebrated a £103 million pay out after selling stock to investors. We live in strange times where the founders of artisanal niche drink products are making a killing against warnings of impending food storage.
If we are doomed and heading for the return of wartime specials (think powdered egg and carrot scones) it’s worth looking at how trends have shifted from scratching together meals from whatever you could lay your hands on to the global larder of artisanal goodies, fast food and ready meals.
Today we import about half of the food we eat. Our largest supplier is the EU, which supplies around 30% of what we consume, and the rest of the world supplies around 20%.
What we import depends on the type of food – imported fruit and veg is huge and outstrips our exports nearly ten to one (reflected in the huge range of year-round choice we now have). But import trade outstrips exports in meat, dairy and fish as well. Indeed, the only category where UK export is higher than imports is in beverages (and not the tea and coffee kind!).
In the war we turned around our import dependency through rationing and a public information programme on what to grow, cook and eat as well as a huge campaign against waste. During the war, British agriculture had to produce the greatest amount of food possible – potatoes, wheat and sugar beets to replace imports and we needed to boost production of fresh foods such as milk, fruit and vegetables. Between 1939 and 1941 foods that showed an increase in consumption were grains (+22%), potatoes (+7%), dairy products (+6%) and vegetables (+1%). Foods showing the biggest decreases were fruit (-58%), fish, poultry and game (-39%), sugar and syrup (-35%), meat (-22%), pulses and nuts (-22%), eggs (-20 %), fats (-12%) and beverages (-1%). Milk was big during the war — consumption increased as a result of the National Milk and School Milk Schemes. These gave expectant and nursing mothers, children and adult priority groups in physical occupations extra rations.
Could we stand up to this challenge now with the changes in our diet, preferences and choice?
Then and now
|Second World War||Today|
|Meat||In 1942 the supply of meat available for civilian consumption had fallen to 80% of pre-war quantities. The choice was either to do without or to make very little go a long way – the weekly adult ration was 113g of bacon or ham and other meat up to the value of 1 shilling and 4 pence – estimated to buy 2 chops.||‘Going vegan’ was predicted to be the biggest food trend in 2018 and in 2016 an estimated 500,000 consumers in the UK were vegan.
Chicken was rare during the war, yet we now eat more chicken than red meat – a staggering 2.2 million birds a day.
|Fish and seafood||Fish and seafood were not rationed and consumption by the end of the war was at an all-time high at 300g per person per week. During the war we ate traditional white fish – home caught haddock and cod as well as herrings, pilchards and mackerel. But a lot of it was tinned.||Today we eat about half as much fish as we did in the 1940s (158 grams per person). Today the majority of seafood that we eat is imported (salmon, tuna) and the majority of what we catch is exported.|
|Eggs and dairy||In wartime the supply of fresh eggs fell – consumption went from three to one per week. Under rationing we became margarine eaters – butter consumption dropped from 7.6 oz per head per week (215 grams) to 2 oz per head per week (2.9 kgs per year).||In 2018 per head consumption of egg is back to pre-war levels (an estimated 3.7 eggs per week). If Brexit is hard, it could be a return to omelettes and souffle as the UK is 87% self-sufficient in egg production. Recent food trends indicate that we have fallen in love with butter again – butter sales are up, and margarines and spreads are down.|
|Potatoes||Potatoes made a huge contribution to the wartime diet – per head consumption was estimated to have increased by 15%.||Today millennials are blamed for the for the drop in the humble spud’s popularity as they opt for rice, noodles and pasta over a plate of mash. According to a report published by The Grocer, potato sales have fallen by 5.4 per cent since 2015|
|Fruit and veg||War folk really did eat their greens – peas, beans, greens, carrots, root vegetables and canned and dried vegetables increased from an estimated 26oz per head per week to 36oz by the end of the war. ‘Dig for Victory’ certainly had an effect – those households with gardens or allotments ate more fruit and veg than those that didn’t. And the amount of home grown wasn’t insignificant. In 1943, 19% of fruit and veg consumed by urban working class households were “free” or home grown.||In 2016, only 26% of adults ate the recommended five portions (400g) of fruit and vegetables fruit a day (the average person only manages 3.9 out of their 5). And even if we are buying them we aren’t necessarily eating them. Defra estimate that 22% of edible fruit and veg is wasted. Today less than a quarter of the fruit and veg we eat is grown here – not surprising when our favourites are grapes, bananas, strawberries, pineapple, broccoli, sweetcorn and tomatoes.
The impacts of a hard Brexit on our food supply might be severe and cause a similar shock to the system as the impact of rationing in the 1940s. But while we’d have to make do with less of our imported delicacies the impacts on health could be positive if it meant a return to the simpler, vegetable and grain-based diet of yesteryear. ln 2016, over a quarter of adults in the UK (26%) and one in five children in Year 6 (age 11) were obese. Any threat to our food imports could have quite an impact on the weight of the nation.