Lessons from WWII

Under wartime circumstances, the food resources of the nation became, in essence, 'common property' which had to be equitably shared amongst the entire population and the nation's allies. - Barker (2008:142)

WWII was a period when the state could not rely on the wage and price system to properly allocate resources to the most important functions, and consequently chose to aggressively intervene in markets (as did many other states during WWII, see citations in Barker, 2008; Collingham, 2011; Boyle, 2022). Obviously, the underlying conditions that caused failure in the price system are not the same as they will be when constructing a sustainable and health – promoting food system, but the processes, structures, and regulations put in place to address the failures hold lessons for the future (an applied history analysis, see Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2016). While conditions today are different, they have echoes of demand-supply challenges of wartime periods, made visible in 2022 by President Biden in invoking the Defense Production Act, passed at the outset of the Korean War, to deal with baby formula shortages caused by closure of a primary production facility in Michigan from bacterial contamination (CP, 2022; and see Get Started Problems, General, Lack of Resilience for more on supply chain vulnerabilities).

Klein (2020) explains why the lessons of WWII are important for responding to the climate emergency. Given the links between the food system and climate change, these analyses are themselves overlapping. Klein quotes William James to summarize why WWII must be analyzed and its lessons applied to today, that it is critical to "inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper" (p. 22).

However, climate is likely much more viewed by the Canadian public as an emergency than is the state of the food system, in part because the food system remains somewhat invisible in general, and more specifically as it is both a cause and solution to the climate crisis. Klein's polling (see p 68ff) suggests that the Canadian population is more advanced in its thinking of transition to new systems than governments are willing to acknowledge and that the wartime framing resonates. In other words, the public is ready for bold interventions.

Following WWI, the federal government realized it had waited too long and with insufficient authority before intervening to correct market failures, with widespread food shortages and inflation the result. Essentially, the state realized that supply and demand would have to be coordinated in order to avoid the problems of WWI (and the Great Depression) and that a range of legal and governing instruments and structures would have to be put in place. Governments wanted to allocate food and food resources so as to forestall malnutrition in the domestic population, feed the troops, meet agreed upon food exports to Britain and the USA, and avoid inflationary pressures. Given the different foods being produced, distributed, and consumed, the number of actors involved, and the regional characteristics of food production and distribution, such coordination would require sophisticated intelligence gathering, cross-jurisdictional communication, and some innovative instruments and governance mechanisms. They would need still to depend on the expertise of farmers and the private sector, but create different rules and signals to move food and food production resources in the necessary ways.

When WWII broke out, the federal government acted quickly to adopt the War Measures Act (WMA), critical to forming a unitary state, and to create, under the WMA authority, the Wartime Prices and Trade Board (WPTB) (Mosby, 2014). Starting modestly and then progressively ramping up its interventions, the WPTB worked primarily via Board Orders (Orders-in-Council) and Administrative Orders that gave execution to Board Orders [1]. It was one of many new structures established over the next few years to execute government agendas. Under the authority of the WMA, the federal government adopted thousands of regulations, initiated many programs, and conducted innumerable consultations with other levels of government, business, and non-governmental agencies (Tables 2 and 3).

Table 2: Key food-related instruments under the authority of the War Measures Act (Britnell and Fowke, 1962; Mosby, 2014)

Instrument Purpose Target / Outcomes
To shift land use and food supply
Production subsidies and price guarantees Increase production of key commodities, particularly flax, beef, butter and cheese, hogs Most targeted commodities saw significant production increases, but weather was also a factor. Hog production doubled.
CWB made primary marketing agent for grain (1943) To deal first with surpluses, then later shortages.  Depending on crop, offered price floors, ceilings, or fixed prices Shifted wheat production to oil crops and animal feed which were facing pressing shortages
Other marketing boards established Increase production or consumption of other commodities Helped deal with apple surpluses early in the war after loss of export markets.  Increased domestic consumption.
Subsidies to processors  (sometimes passed on to growers through processors) Hold down pressure on the price ceilings and maximize canned goods for when fresh out of season so that imports are not required. For canning crops and soft tree fruits, and berries for jam.
Subsidies to defray freight charges To reduce the differential between imported and domestic prices; to move products from high production areas to low ones. Evened out supplies for processors
Victory Gardens program Take some pressure off the vegetable supply chain By 1944, 209,200 victory gardens produced 57000 tons of vegetables. 82% at home, 15% in nearby vacant lots, and 3% in community allotments; more middle than low-income activity.  The impact may have been more symbolic than real.
To shift labour
National Selective Service Civilian regulations and National Selective Service Mobilization regulations Keep important agricultural labour on the farm, only non-essential farmworkers allowed to mobilize Helped maintain supplies by assuring enough work on the farm
Wage controls Stabilize salaries relative to the cost of living increases Successfully controlled inflation which resulted then in modest wage increases.  Viewed as successful (Canada War Museum, undated)
Regulations reducing non-essential industrial activity to minimum requirements To help concentrate employment in more essential sectors Successful re-allocation of labour had impacts on things like tool and equipment availability
Regulations and cost-sharing To move labour and equipment to deficient areas for planting and harvest Moved thousands of workers across the country at critical times.
To shift equipment and inputs
Permit rationing and quotas of farm machinery To control sales at essential levels Balanced agricultural needs with the war industries.
Subsidized key equipment and supplies, To assure adequate supply of certain essential goods that are deficient Machinery, binder twine, ropes, bags, feed, fertilizer, saddler, lumber, pesticides, petroleum, wire, wooden containers, and package bees.
Export permits Restricted export of key inputs by requiring permits. More inputs available to farmers
Regulations restricting range of equipment sizes To rationalize allocation of resources for equipment construction Contributed to significant control of equipment
To shift prices
Import and export controls Restrict use of exotics like cocoa and sugar in processing with import quotas Helped manage national accounts and prevented excesses and shortages
Price ceiling regulations for animal feed To control prices of animal products Helped manage animal product supplies
Maximum prices, for some commodities of nutritional importance Many foods. Ascorbic acid consumption is a nutritional concern Maximums set on many foods, including fruit and vegetables; citrus, and also citrus import subsidies. Restricted canned juices when fresh available. Also, WPTB bought grapefruit juice in 45, but lost money on it during resale.

Lack of minimum prices is sometimes a problem.

Shoppers (mostly women) helped with monitoring

Regulations to prohibit the manufacturing of specific commodities To assure adequate supplies of other processed goods at reasonable prices E.g., certain kinds of tinned fish
To shift packaging
Regulate prices of packaging materials To prevent price gouging associated with material shortages Maintained more stable prices
Regulate processed food packaging sizes Save on resources devoted to food packaging; reduce imports to address balance of payments difficulties Tin can sizes reduced from 116 to 9 permitted
To shift consumption
Information campaigns Change diets and source of products (eat Canadian). Used schools for both education and diagnostics of family diet and cooking, p. 50, corporate partners to get the message out Also engaged women’s organizations, charitable groups, and other civil society actors. Gave some corporate products legitimacy, which was problematic.  Good nutrition and patriotic citizenship were common themes. Campaigns had the imprint of middle-class reformers

Some success encouraging eating Canadian

Official Food Rules First national nutrition programme; the state, health groups, voluntary organizations, and private advertizers all participated. The state had the power to fine war industries that didn’t offer nutritionally adequate food to their workers Designed around war, labour, and agricultural production needs, rather than social determinants of health, an individual responsibility flavour. Didn’t actually fine industries, just had Nutritional Services try to convince management.  But nutritional health did improve somewhat during the war.
Evaporated milk distribution program Assure adequate dairy consumption Areas with milk shortages
Regulations preventing serving of meat in restaurants To reduce meat consumption First Tuesdays, then Friday were added late in the war
Coupon and permit (for manufacturers) rationing To assure efficient allocation and consumption of scarce foods Chicken, prepared and organ meats, fish, fruit, vegetables, dairy (other than butter), eggs weren’t rationed. Butter, sugar and tea had the biggest drops and created significant consternation. Other rationed goods included meat cuts, coffee, preserves, and canned fruit, restaurant cream, and sugar. Post-Depression, rationing meant more adjustments for middle and high-income earners than low ones. Interestingly, suspension of meat rationing in 44 did not appreciably increase consumption.
Subsidized school lunch program Improve the nutritional health of school-aged children and stimulate farm sector Big municipalities, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver.  Some provinces had provided equipment and grants.  National proposal in 44 but not adopted. Trial school lunch programme evaluations did not reveal dramatic improvements.  But opposition largely political tactics.
Import subsidies Subsidize critical nutrients like citrus imports Expensive citrus subsidy, difficult to administer.
To shift wealth distribution
Anti-profiteering Act and excess profits tax (Klein, 2020) Fixed profit margins on government contracts; profits cap for all businesses and 100% tax in excess of aggregate cap Reluctantly accepted by business as an equity measure
Family Allowances (1944), implemented in 1945 To improve nutritional status of low-income citizens, particularly children A significant move toward a nutritional minimum for low-income families. Appears to have increased demand for dairy products in 1945.  Value eroded with post-war inflation since not indexed.
Unemployment Insurance Act (1940). Support during periods of unemployment Attempted through the 30s but disputes over jurisdiction and costs.  Constitutional amendment allowed for federal jurisdiction.  But deeply flawed due to 50% coverage on wages and significant ineligibility
Municipal relief programs Some including Toronto used the Marsh analysis to improve rates for better nutritional health Ontario acted but at a lower level that wasn’t sufficient.  Many other jurisdictions did not adopt new measures
Maximum price regulations to control housing rental, clothing and footwear prices. Prevent price gouging given rising incomes with often scarce goods Contributed to keeping inflation low
To meet war obligations
Export subsidies To encourage manufacturers to export to the UK Significant exports during the war, contracts acted like price guarantees, assisted by subsidies
Regulations to commandeer cheese To meet contract requirements in early stages of war Diverted cheese from domestic to British market

Table 3: Key governance structures (Britnell and Fowke, 1962; Mosby, 2014)

Structure Functions Successes/failures
Wartime Prices and Trade Board (WPTB, 1939).  First attached to Minister of Labour, then shifted to Finance.  Had a Food Administration. 13 regional and 100 local offices, 8000 employees, oversaw 5 Crown Corporations[2],  >600 local ration boards created. Responsible for determining overall domestic food requirements (based on dietary standards suggested by the Canadian Council on Nutrition). Issued ration books for key items, setting production quotas for most foods, subsidies for producers, maximum prices for most foods, could investigate industry profits, set portion sizes in restaurants and declare meatless days, set limits on the packaging of foods, and determined production and sale of kitchen durables.  Could issue fines for non-compliance. Purpose was to prevent price gouging, assure adequate supply, equitable distribution. Largely successful and relatively popular because of equity mandate, though popularity faded over time.
Food Requirements Cttee  (1942). Interdepartmental committee comprising Ag, external affairs, finance, fisheries, trade and commerce, WPTB.  Later Pensions and National Health added. Translating nutrition-based demand for the domestic market, military requirements, and export obligations into production targets (taking account of self-provisioning). Used consultation and a national conference in late 42 to set targets. Continuing after the war because it was widely viewed as a good idea.
Agricultural Prices Support Act (passed in 1944, operationalized in 1946) and Board To stabilize farm incomes by creating price floors as a transition strategy out of the war period. Could use price guarantees (floors) or could buy  commodities directly to support the price (soak up excess supply)
Council on Nutrition (1938), and in 1941 a Nutrition Services Division with Dept. Pensions and National Health (Barker, 2008) Determine nutritional health status of at-risk groups; improve health of military recruits Partial.  Internal disputes about suitable policy interventions, essential and individual responsibility vs. social determinants debate.  Much of social assistance agenda not implemented.
FPT committee on farm labour To manage labour requirements in deficient regions, particularly for planting and harvest Organized movement of thousands of temporary workers across the country.
Agricultural Supplies Board (1940) Dealt with animal feed and inputs.  Administered apple and freight subsidy programmes, promoted production of various commodities and looked after input availability for production. Had to manage domestic requirements vs. war obligations.
Agricultural Food Board (1943) Coordinating body for all commodity activities, liaison between Agriculture Department and WPTB, consulted with provinces Took over producer subsidies from Agriculture Department, particularly concerned with dairy
Wartime Food Corporation (1942) Prohibit cattle exports and redirect to domestic market Managing beef supply a key challenge during the war
Wartime Information Board (1942) Propaganda campaigns to change diets, more Canadian, less processed, with the Consumer Branch of the WPTB Individual commodities shifted depending on surpluses and shortages

Given the uniqueness of the situation, it cannot be said there was a coherent master plan, nor that everything worked perfectly. Mistakes were made, safeguards for good administration were bypassed, graft and inefficiencies existed, rights were trampled (Klein, 2020). Especially in the early years of the war, consumers with sufficient income and access hoarded goods, bought on black markets, speculated and manipulated ration books, tensions between key food system actors were apparent, and firms and farms participated in efforts to skirt the rules and in profiteering (Barker, 2008). But interventions and governance mechanisms continually evolved through the war years as governments refined their instruments and processes and responded to new challenges. Organizations were altered, reporting relationships changed, responsibilities were traded from one unit to another. All this required significant consultation between the federal government and the provinces in agriculture and labour since provinces had more jurisdiction and expertise, and often the connections to industry. An obvious challenge was ensuring measures were not at cross-purposes.  But, a constant theme of these new institutional mechanisms was that they had to work quickly and get things done, something standing in sharp contrast to today's decision-making (Klein, 2020).

With the outbreak of WWII, Canada faced significant labour difficulties for both manufacturing and agriculture. Much “surplus” farm labour went to war or to the war industries. Canada had just come through the Depression, a period of high unemployment in which many farm people stayed home because there was no work elsewhere. For the first few war years, this surplus allowed the market to allocate labour relatively efficiently. But shortages of farm labour started showing up in 1941 that affected food production and combined with low prices on government contracts, reduced farm profitability. This confluence of forces galvanized the newly formed Canadian Federation of Agriculture as a lobby for Canadian farmers (Barker, 2008). Governments decided that relying on the market would no longer suffice, and the federal government had power under the War Measures Act to take control of labour from the provinces. A series of Orders-in-Council[3] were passed in March 1942 that constituted a comprehensive approach to the control of labour. The key aspect of these orders for agriculture was that farm labour could not move into other occupations. Agricultural workers could either join the military or hold temporary employment outside of agriculture if it did not interfere with their agricultural duties and a permit was obtained from the local Selective Service officer.

The federal government passed the Vocational Training Coordination Act in 1942 to fund a variety of programs for servicemen, veterans, the unemployed, and supervisors in industry as a way to improve skills in manufacturing. The programs included high school vocational courses and apprenticeships. The federal government established conditions for provincial eligibility in the program. The Vocational Schools Assistance Agreement of 1945 was more exacting, in that it provided cost-shared assistance to create provincial high schools offering both vocational and academic programs (Lyons et al., 1991). Here, once again, we see federal intervention to provide coordination across the country in an area of provincial jurisdiction.

The other issue was moving farm and processing labour to the right places. Under the War Measures and National Resources Mobilization Acts, the minister of labour was empowered to enter into agreements with each province to recruit agricultural labour and transport it to the needed places. The federal government paid for transport to different provinces and shared costs within a province around recruitment and transport. They established a federal-provincial committee on farm labour. They formulated recruitment and placement programs specific to each province and recruited farm labour to other tasks when not required on farms. Government established a base minimum price through processors, to compensate for increased farm labour costs associated with the decline in labour surpluses.

Movement of large groups across provincial borders started in the fall of 1942. Five thousand farm workers and students went from the east to the west by special trains to help with the grain harvest. The labour situation was also complicated by a shortage of equipment. Much of it had been imported from the US prior to the war, but the Americans were limiting production to supply their war effort. Canada also restricted production by setting quotas and controlling access to credit for purchases. Quotas were removed in mid-1945. Consequently, movement of equipment and people from the US and equipment within Canada was organized to complement movement of internal domestic labour. As part of this, governments had to develop production priorities, placing livestock and livestock products ahead of cereals, vegetables, and fruit because of their value for the war.

Other supplementary measures included granting Farm Duty leaves to military personnel so they could work on their farm at critical moments. The local Selective Service officers were to direct discharged and rejected soldiers to agriculture and it became a compulsory measure in late 1943 when agriculture was added as a sector to the existing regulations. Conscientious objectors were also directed to agriculture from the Alternative Service Camps. Males in less essential sectors were required to report to Selective Service offices and sent back to their farms. Treaty indigenous people were encouraged to take work on farms during harvest periods. Many campaigns asked urban people to help during planting and harvest. Many high school and university women were recruited for fruit picking.

Overall, the strategic interventions worked, although the farm labour difficulties were never fully resolved and production and profitability suffered (Barker, 2008). There was greater attention paid to population nutrition by decision makers, with progressive improvements in the amount of food consumed but also in the mix of foods, all leading to improved nutritional status. Full employment emerged as the war progressed, wages increased, and institutional feeding in the military and elsewhere were all positive contributing factors. Rationing may have brought consumption of core rationed foodstuffs in line with pre-war consumption. Dairy products proved to be the most difficult to manage because it was hard to allocate milk amongst the 4 main product groups: butter, cheese, fresh milk, and milk powder. Exports rose dramatically after 1942 with the influence of both positive weather conditions and state supports. During the war years (continuing post-war), there were significant increases, albeit variable by commodity and time period, in net farm income compared to the 30s (Britnell and Fowke, 1962). The aggregate food numbers were that production increased by 50%, farm prices increased by 60% and consumer prices remained largely flat (Barker, 2008). “The cost of living, which had risen 17.8% from 1939 to 1941, increased only 2.8% from 1941 to 1945, the most successful record among all the major nations in the war” (Canada War Museum, undated).

Because of restrictions on processed foods, the war years may also have countered some of the negative food quality trends that had emerged between the wars. Mass marketing of certain foods at a national level (cereals, canned foods, sodas) had expanded between the wars, facilitated in part by technological changes, like new canning technology, granulation, flaking, and shredding. Nutritionally deficient flours of the milling industry had emerged (artificial enrichment came later). New techniques of mass advertising and product differentiation had also emerged in between the wars.  It was the era of the nascent brand (Winson, 2013). However, it was also a period that cemented the transition to animal production - beef, dairy, pork, cheese, and eggs - much of it for export (Barker, 2008), a situation that in many ways still haunts us today.

Post-war, most of these interventions and governance instruments were dismantled as decision makers decided that the price system would function again, although rationing of some staples continued till 1947. There was much disgruntlement as prices rose quickly and availability of key goods was very spotty, in part because of ongoing commitments to export certain foodstuff (Barker, 2008). The post-war period also saw an acceleration of the pre-war trends in declining food quality, particularly the move to convenience and the increasing rise of pseudo-foods (Winson, 2013).

An obvious question for today is whether governments have the skills to implement again a complex set of interventions as occurred in WWII. The interventions proposed on this site are of equivalent, if not greater, complexity (although different and updated) given changing socio-economic, environmental, and cultural conditions since WWII. A key takeaway, though, is that governments did not do this alone.  Businesses seconded people to the government, and community organizations, charities, and churches mobilized people and communities to take action.  Many individuals displayed leadership. Even with the hardships and restrictions on liberties, there was in general a united sense of purpose. And everyone learned as they went, with continuous adaption of actions once it became clear what did and didn't work.  The biggest challenge is likely not skill, though there are certainly numerous internal government processes that reduce effectiveness (see Instruments), and continuous training will be required to improve skill sets. And there are legitimate questions about who is attracted to elected office and their capacity and intention to support the public interest, especially the lack of specific skills required in complexity management to run for office. The biggest challenge, though, is the fragmentation of purpose, though this too is partly a product of government policy decisions or non-decisions that have contributed to social, economic, environmental, and cultural inequities.  COVID-19 has revealed, however, that there remains some (contested) sense of collective purpose and that's part of what governments must build upon. At least anecdotally, it appears that countries with a higher level of mutual purpose that governments did well building upon, including social supports, have had better public health outcomes related to COVID. And there will be no shortage of businesses and community organizations willing to participate in a common agenda to change the food system. Different kinds of arrangements would be needed than were used in WWII, but there are numerous processes underway that could serve equivalent purposes (see Goal 7, Structures and processes for regulatory pluralism).


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wartime_Prices_and_Trade_Board

[2] http://www.answers.com/topic/wartime-prices-and-trade-board

[3] Used commonly in Commonwealth countries instead of, or to supplement, legislation debated in Parliament.  In Canada, the government of the day creates the order and has it approved by the Governor General.