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War Economy

Food Crisis in Britain

page 490

Food Crisis in Britain

British food supplies were getting critically low. New Zealand dairy production in the 1943–44 season was at its lowest for over a decade, and meat production while higher than before the war was well below the preceding four wartime seasons.

United States forces in the Pacific were taking an increasing proportion of exportable surpluses, and exports of meat to the United Kingdom fell lower than for any year since 1931.

Britain had repeatedly stressed the need for extra food from New Zealand, and the British Ministry of Food viewpoint, that New Zealand should concentrate on food production as her war effort rather than on providing armed forces, was gaining ground. Butter had been rationed in New Zealand from October 1943, in order to make more available for export, but greater attention to production was also imperative, as the New Zealand Cabinet had realised when it made its decision, in January 1944, to bring back selected workers from the Pacific.

In the early part of 1944, the British food problem worsened. The weekly cheese ration had been successively reduced from 8 oz a head to 6 oz to 4 oz to 3 oz, and was finally in danger of being reduced to 2 oz. There was, for a time, a plan to suspend temporarily the butter ration of 2 oz, failing the arrival of further supplies.

Confirming a February 1944 discussion with Mr Nash, the British Minister of Food, Mr Llewellin, wrote:1

‘… I would like to give you a few figures illustrating the vital importance of New Zealand's production of meat and dairy produce to the people of this country and to our Armed Forces. If New Zealand's production declines below the present level I do not see how we can possibly maintain our present standards of feeding in this country. Indeed I cannot be certain that we shall achieve this even if there is no further decline in the supplies you can send us and I can see no hope of making good our prospective deficiencies from any other source. It is the considered view of Cabinet here that the general standard of our civilian rations is not capable of any reduction if we are to keep the nation fighting and production fit. Therefore if some substantial reduction of the essential supplies which we get from your country has to take place our Service rations will almost certainly have to take a share in any cuts that have to be made. The following figures show the extent to which we depend on New Zealand for meat, butter, cheese.

page 491

Butter To maintain our present ration of two ounces per week we need to import in 1944 160,000 tons of butter. Of this quantity we are looking to New Zealand to provide 96,000 tons. For practically all the remainder we look to Australia.

Cheese To maintain our three ounce ration we need 224,000 tons of imports and we are looking to New Zealand to provide 85,000 tons for this country and for our Armed Forces overseas. As we shall not get more than 80,000 tons of cheese from the U.S.A. in 1944, we shall probably have to reduce cheese ration for a number of weeks and replace this with canned meats from our protein reserves.

Meat Although we are not so dependent on New Zealand to the same overwhelming extent for the maintenance of the 1s. 2d. meat ration, we are looking to New Zealand for 210,000 tons of frozen meat in 1944.

‘We must either get this quantity from New Zealand or we must look to the U.S.A. to supply us with whatever deficiencies in our liftings from New Zealand is caused by the supply of New Zealand meat to the U.S.A. forces in the South Pacific.

‘New Zealand has been able to send us substantially greater quantities of these foods in the past. For example, in the four years 1934–38 our average imports of butter from New Zealand were 136,000 tons and of cheese 89,000 tons. In the year 1940–41 you actually supplied us with 107,000 tons of cheese. In the case of meat our average imports from 1934–38 were 260,000 tons, and in the first year of the war 285,000 tons.

‘The particular foods which New Zealand sends us are those of which we are now in most need. It is in livestock products that we suffered our most serious reductions over pre-war consumption levels, and my scientific advisers tell me that our consumption of animal protein foods is now as low as it can safely be.’

1 Letter copied in cable Nash to Fraser, 23 February 1944. Copy of cable in War History narrative No. 50, p. 12.