World War II, Food Insecurity, And the Modern Situation.

The lack of sufficient food and outright famine was widespread problem in World War II although it is not something most Americans are aware of. Typically, the urban areas had it worst. This was partially because those in the countryside were growing their own food and partially because of German policy. Take the “Hunger Plan” for example……

The German “Hunger Plan” called for “the annihilation of what the German régime perceived as a superfluous population (Jews, and the population of Ukrainian large cities such as Kiev, which received no supplies at all); extreme reduction of rations for Ukrainians in the remaining cities; and reduction in foodstuffs consumed by the farming population.”

Now this plan was not fully implemented, but there were massive famines in the Ukraine. And from everything I have read, those in the countryside faired far better than those in urban areas in part because it was impossible for the Germans to get farmers to grow food for them and at the same time prevent the farmers from feeding themselves. Also, disruptions in supply lines from the fighting impacted the urban areas that needed to import their food a lot more then it impacted the rural areas that grew the food. We can see this same dynamic (urban famine, rural areas doing comparatively better) all over Europe.

One example would the be the “Great Famine” in Greece. As Wikipedia puts it (emphasis mine)…..

The nutritional situation became critical in the summer of 1941 and in the autumn turned into a full-blown famine. Especially in the first winter of occupation (1941–42) food shortage was acute and famine struck especially in the urban centers of the country. Food shortage reached a climax and a famine was unavoidable. During that winter the mortality rate reached a peak, while according to British historian, Mark Mazower, this was the worst famine the Greeks experienced from ancient times. Bodies of dead persons were secretly abandoned in cemeteries or at the streets (possibly so their ration cards could continue to be used by surviving relatives). In other cases, bodies were found days after the death had taken place. The sight of emaciated dead bodies was commonplace in the streets of Athens.

The situation in Athens and the wider area with its port, Piraeus, was out of control, the hyperinflation was in full swing and the price of bread was increased 89-fold from April 1941 to June 1942. According to the records of the German army the mortality rate in Athens alone reached 300 deaths per day during December 1941, while the estimates of the Red Cross were much higher, at 400 deaths while in some days the death toll reached 1,000. Apart from the urban areas the population of the islands was also affected by the famine, especially those living in Mykonos, Syros and Chios.

There are no accurate numbers of the famine deaths because civil registration records did not function during the occupation. In general, it is estimated that Greece suffered approximately 300,000 deaths during the Axis occupation as a result of famine and malnutrition. However, not all parts of Greece experienced equal levels of food scarcity. Although comprehensive data on regional famine severity does not exist, the available evidence indicates that the severe movement restrictions, the proximity to agricultural production and the level of urbanization were crucial factors of famine mortality.

We can read similar things about the Dutch famine during World War II. Again, going by Wikipedia (emphasis mine) …..

Food stocks in the cities in the western Netherlands rapidly ran out. The adult rations in cities such as Amsterdam dropped to below 1000 calories (4,200 kilojoules) a day by the end of November 1944 and to 580 calories in the west by the end of February 1945. Over this Hongerwinter (“Hunger winter”), a number of factors combined to cause starvation in especially the large cities in the West of the Netherlands. The winter in the month of January 1945 itself was unusually harsh prohibiting transport by boat for roughly a month between early January 1945 and early February 1945. Also, the German army destroyed docks and bridges to flood the country and impede the Allied advance. Thirdly, Allied bombing made it extremely difficult to transport food in bulk, since Allied bombers could not distinguish German military and civilian shipments. As the south-eastern (the Maas valley) and the south-western part of the Netherlands (Walcheren and Beveland) became one of the main western battlefields, these conditions combined to make the transport of existing food stocks in large enough quantities nearly impossible.

The areas affected were home to 4.5 million people. Butter disappeared after October 1944, shortly after railway transport to the western parts of the Netherlands had stopped in September due to the railway strike. The supply of vegetable fats dwindled to a minuscule seven-month supply of 1.3 liters per person. At first 100 grams of cheese were allotted every two weeks; the meat coupons became worthless. The bread ration had already dropped from 2,200 to 1,800 and then to 1,400 grams per week. Then it fell to 1,000 grams in October, and by April 1945 to 400 grams a week. Together with one kilogram of potatoes, this then formed the entire weekly ration. The black market increasingly ran out of food as well, and with the gas and electricity and heat turned off, everyone was very cold and very hungry. In search of food, young strong people would walk for tens of kilometers to trade valuables for food at farms. Tulip bulbs and sugar beets were commonly consumed. Furniture and houses were dismantled to provide fuel for heating.

In the last months of 1944, in anticipation of the coming famine, tens of thousands of children were brought from the cities to rural areas where many remained until the end of the war. Deaths in the three big cities of the Western Netherlands (The Hague, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam) started in earnest in December 1944, reaching a peak in March 1945, but remained very high in April and May 1945. In early summer 1945 the famine was brought quickly under control. From September 1944 until May 1945 the deaths of 18,000 Dutch people were attributed to malnutrition as the primary cause and in many more as a contributing factor.

There are a lot of other similar stories that could be told about World War II but the bottom line is that food scarcity was an issue in many areas during World War II and it always seemed to hit hardest in the urban areas. Now I think to a lot of people this is sort of like announcing that water is wet. Who would expect anything differently?

But the fact that the experience of World War II accords with people’s natural expectations is precisely the problem. The things that enabled rural areas to do better during times of food shortages at the time of World War II no longer hold true and yet I don’t think people have updated their thinking to account for the changes.

As Chelsea Green’s “A Short History of the Agricultural Seed” says (emphasis mine)……

These changes didn’t “take” with farmers overnight. First of all, many of these inputs were expensive, and most farmers were not operating on a cash-intensive system—they produced all or most of their own fertility, feed, and seed for their farms. Pesticides, nitrogen fertilizer, and even tractors wouldn’t become commonplace on North American or European farms until after World War II, and even later in other parts of the world. The main source of fuel on the farm was the grain and hay produced on-farm for horses. It’s hard to believe now that only 100 years ago, even in countries that were rapidly industrializing, most of the population lived on farms that were largely self-sufficient, breeding their own animals and growing their crops from seed they had grown.

I don’t think many people have fully internalized how unprecedented modern times are compared to most of recorded history. Urban areas have always been vulnerable to the collapse of complicated supply lines since the time of the Bronze Age collapse. Rome famously lived in fear of its grain supplies being cut off just as much as Great Britain feared submarines. But at the time of World War II a farmer in Great Britain could feed himself even if there were not enough famers in Great Britain to feed the largely urban population of what was one of the most urbanized countries in the world at the time. But now a farmer cannot feed himself without the aid of a long and complicated supply line anymore then a city dweller can.

If you use tractors instead of horses then you are dependent on fuel being supplied. If you plant hybrid seed (and almost all farmers do) you can’t supply yourself with seed if you want to. If your region is specialized on only one type of agricultural product (as almost all rural areas in America are) then you can only feed yourself on what your area has. If very few people in rural areas are farmers, then most people in rural areas are not producing food in any case.

The bottom line is that modern supply system has done a wonderful job of preventing famine due to natural causes because it swiftly transfers resources from one part of the world to others. But it is vulnerable in an unprecedented way to man caused disruptions to the supply line. If war breaks about between the US and China and supply lines go down to cyber attacks and unrestricted submarine warfare, you will not be going out to the local farm to barter the family silverware for food like the Dutch did during World War II. Once the local farmers kill off their livestock and eat their seed they are going to be in the same boat as yourself.

If you are an optimist, you can hope that the government will prevent the supply chain from failing to such an extent. But given the problems a historically minor problem like Covid presented modern supply chains, one would hate to put that optimism to the test. If you are a pessimist, the modern systems of complicated supply chains have one silver lining. It has never been easier for little people to safely store large amounts of calories for long periods of time.

Part of this is due to how cheap food is in modern times. We don’t think of food as being cheap because of the current food price inflation but if you look at costs of the staples that people in World War II relied on they are lot cheaper in real terms then they would have been 50 or 100 years ago.

Another reason it has never been easier for little people to lay away food is something called plastics. Plastic were not something really available until the 50s and 60s and even then it was not as common as now. It makes it tough for a little person to store grains if they had have a choice between a sack that rats can get into and metal container that is expensive.

But the thing that makes it easiest to store food now is those very same supply lines that make us so vulnerable. When I was young, we had plastics and such things, but it was not easy for a person to go on the internet and order bulk grain, plastic buckets, mylar bags and other such things. Using these things, you can safely store most grains for 20 to 30 years. The below video will show you how (I chose the below video because of the fairly high production values and the fact that it showed an old bucket being opened. Otherwise this is not a channel I would normally go to for this type of information as it is more geared to guns and military stuff and not food storage related things).

One point of concern I have about the above video is the use of diatomaceous earth in the addition to oxygen absorbers. I am normally a belt and suspenders type guy but I think an air tight Mylar bag in a sealed 5 gallon bucket with oxygen absorbers ought to be plenty. I understand the health implications of oxygen absorbers (basically nothing more than iron that reacts with the available oxygen to form rust) but the diatomaceous earth I am not as comfortable with.

Another point that is indirectly related to the video is the type of grain that you choose to store. Most people who go the above route store rice and beans because that you don’t need any special equipment to cook that and most people are not allergic to that type of food. Personally, I am not a fan of storing rice. My main problem with rice is that you can only store white rice for long periods of time (brown rice spoils regardless of how you try to store it) and white rice has little nutritional value. When the Japanese Navy was first coming into existence they just about killed their sailors by switching them over to white rice. They thought they were doing all the country boys a favor by giving them such high quality rice (and it seems that the sailors thought it was a good thing as well) but they started coming down with all sorts of serious health issues until the Japanese Navy finally realized how deficient the white rice was. The bottom line is that white rice does not make near as good a staff of life as brown rice does. This the reason a lot of white rice you can buy now is enriched but I don’t know how long the spray on vitamins will last in storage.

Having said some people would argue that I am setting up straw man by running down rice this way. Most people don’t rely just on rice for their food storage and they fully realized what it has and does not have in terms of nutrients. And what other grain is as easy to prepare in austere conditions? But I can’t help feel that wheat makes a much better staff of life if your body can tolerate it. Wheat has a decent amount of protein in it where as rice very little and because you are storing the whole grain it has lot more other nutrients then rice as well. In theory, you can also sprout wheat to get something like fresh vegetables although I have to wonder how well 20 year old wheat would sprout.

The main downside to storing wheat is that most people would want to have some kind of grain mill to handle that wheat (another thing modern supply lines make easier for the modern person to get then they could 50 years ago). And what if the grain mill breaks? I will grant that this is a legitimate downside to wheat compared to rice although strictly speaking a grain mill is not necessary as you can throw wheat in a pot with some water and cook it like rice.

To certain extent the debate about what is best is beside the point. If supply chains go down for any length of time, the best type of food will be whatever you have that is edible. Right now we can see that those supply lines are very vulnerable but we can also see how those supply lines make it easier for us to prepare for disruptions. To my mind, that naturally suggests a course of action.

Of course, the reality is that due to laziness and a perceived lack of time, I have never actually stored grain the way I have described. Instead, I have been taking the lazy way out and buying my buckets pre-packaged from Rainy Day Foods. I don’t think this is ideal because you never know how much care the people putting these buckets together have put in them. In the case of Rainy Day Foods, from what I have been able to tell they are doing things right (I had one bucket opened just to check that they had the proper oxygen absorbers in the sealed bag) but it still makes me uneasy from a quality control perspective. I know you can get some cheaper buckets then Rainy Day Foods but from what I have read online they just rely on the seal of the bucket and don’t put the Mylar bag inside. That is not a cost savings that I personally want but I am no expert in this area so I certainly recommend doing your own research if you are going to take the lazy way out.

As for myself, I still plan on gathering some supplies and maybe recruiting some help (some people say it is a one person job, others say it works easier with two due to the need to seal up the bags as quickly as possible) and filling some buckets myself. But I am trying to prevent the perfect from being the enemy of the good so I have started building a stockpile the lazy way rather than waiting around for everything to come together so that I can do it right.

And that generally is the challenge I face when trying prepare. I don’t want to just rush out and do things for the sake of doing them but I don’t want to wait around until I have everything figure out either. Striking the balance between those two things is something I am still trying to figure out.

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