NEWSPAPER headlines have assured us that famine stalks in Europe, but often the articles underneath consist mainly of conjectures based on supposed analogies with conditions during World War I or on out-of-date or fragmentary evidence. It is highly important for us, politically, to know whether the conquering, the conquered, and the few remaining neutrals of Europe are actually suffering from empty stomachs, or are likely to suffer in the near future, and whether there is anything they can do about it, and if so what. Let us therefore examine the facts in so far as we can learn them.

After knowing disastrous sweeps of famine for centuries, Europe finally succeeded in conquering hunger just as earlier she had banished the Black Death and other scourges. In Russia, India and China waves of hunger were, and still are, common. But in Europe they had disappeared, except in times of war. Among the measures which had brought about this result the more significant were an extensive storage policy; quick adjustments, when necessary, in the supply of grain set aside for the feeding of livestock; the reduction or expansion of livestock herds in view of the food and fodder situation; a readier access to overseas supplies; the accumulation of private reserves by ever-vigilant speculators; and, most important of all, the increased cultivation of high-yielding crops such as potatoes, sugar beets and fodder.

But though famine had disappeared as a phenomenon in Europe it remained a traditional fear. Children still are brought up never to waste a bit of food, because scarcity, if not famine itself, may be just around the corner. And Europeans are also aware from actual experience that war brings a scarcity of almost everything they eat and wear. As a result, consumers in European cities make more of a habit of keeping their pantry shelves well-stocked than Americans do. The farmers, too, as producers, are used to acting to forestall any threatened scarcity, for when crops are failing their governments instruct them to make adjustments long before any shortage becomes generally evident.

We can be sure that the Europeans have not been sitting idly by, twiddling their thumbs, until famine overtakes them or until charity from the United States or new supplies from Argentina or some other exporting country come to their rescue. If aid should come they would welcome it. But they know that even then it could only supplement the adjustments they must make themselves. And even small adjustments, when applied to the food habits of 330 million people and the production habits of 120 million farmers, will obviously produce great results.

II

Rationing has two objects: to eke out supplies efficiently and to eke them out evenly. The mere fact that rationing exists in a country does not necessarily mean that there is famine there. On the contrary, it may indicate merely that the government is on the alert to avoid famine, to make certain that rising prices and fear of scarcity do not lead to speculation or to hoarding and gorging by the well-to-do at the expense of low-income groups. Rationing measures are quite as important for public morale as they are for the maintenance of the physical fitness of soldiers and laborers.

Today practically all the European countries, those that export food as well as those that import, have rationed at least some of the essential foodstuffs. Normally the whole Continent, excluding the British Isles, imports 6 percent of its carbohydrates (grain, potatoes, and sugar) and 20 to 25 percent of its edible fats and oils. With the outbreak of war, a major part of these imports, and especially the fats and oils, became inaccessible. Germany foresaw this, and long before she launched her attack on Poland she had scientifically prepared a streamlined rationing system to take care of the different requirements of various age groups and occupations. Sweden, Finland and Switzerland, the few remaining neutrals, besides Portugal and Spain, early introduced rationing schemes. And since then the other nations, belligerent or occupied, have followed suit. With typical thoroughness, Germany rationed every kind of food. Bread is not rationed in Switzerland, Portugal, Greece and Italy. Meat, bacon and fish are not rationed in Denmark and Norway. Potatoes are not rationed anywhere except in Germany, Belgium, and, recently Holland.

In April of this year the basic weekly bread ration for a "normal" consumer varied from 43 ounces or less in Spain, to 56 ounces in Belgium, 59 in occupied and unoccupied France, 80 in Denmark, and 85 in Germany. In addition to these basic bread rations for adults, special rations were granted professional groups to meet the requirements of the physical work they perform. The rations of butter and fats range all the way from 2 ounces in Poland, 3 in occupied France and 5 in Bohemia and Moravia, to 7 ounces in Italy, 9 in Holland, 9½ in Germany, 11 in Norway, and 12½ in Denmark. Similarly, sugar rations vary from 2¼ ounces to 13 ounces and more.

To ascertain what these rations mean in terms of adequate nutrition is exceedingly difficult. To compare them with the average per capita consumption of 71 ounces of wheat-rye-corn bakery products in the United States[i] would be quite misleading, for reasons too complicated to explain here. Knowledge of normal peacetime food habits in each country is required, and these habits differ radically. In Poland, potatoes and rye bread have always formed the basic food. In France, it is wheat bread. Again, in some countries the rations change rapidly, while in others, such as Germany, they remain relatively stable. In countries with a large rural population much food evades public control. Hence comparisons must be made carefully and judgments must be cautious. Short rations in bread do not necessarily lead to under-nutrition in countries where potatoes remain plentiful (e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Denmark, and Holland). The same is true of short meat rations if there are ample supplies of fish, cheese, or dry peas, beans or lentils. Short rations of butter, lard, and margarine are not important so long as bacon, pork and sausages are available.

III

By this spring all the governments of Europe were in control of stocks and were regulating to some extent the consumption and distribution of all essential foods which were, or threatened to become, scarce. The various food administrations naturally have displayed different degrees of skill. Next to Germany it seems probable that Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland have the most efficient food administrations. Their markets were organized on behalf of the farmers many years ago, and as a result the farmers are used to coöperation and discipline.

Some countries, anticipating coming emergencies, began accumulating "war reserves" in 1938 and 1939. In occupied areas like Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France, the German Army has requisitioned large parts of these stores.[ii] Some were released later in payment for political, military or industrial coöperation. But in the neutral countries which have so far escaped "protective custody" the reserves on hand helped avoid real stringency.

All countries with efficient administrations have readopted the food-saving methods developed during the first World War, along with the refinements worked out since by the German grain monopoly beginning in 1928. A higher ratio of flour to be extracted from wheat and rye has been fixed, and this has made it possible to increase by 15 or 20 percent the bread output from a given unit of grain. This procedure reduces the amount of bran and millfeed for animals. In other words, foodstuffs that once went into the manger are rerouted to the human dinner table. In countries compelled to be especially thrifty with grain, the millers are forced to extract 80 to 90 pounds of flour from 100 pounds of wheat instead of only 70 pounds. Hence they have only 10 or 15 pounds of bran and millfeed to sell to hog feeders and cattlemen instead of 30 or 40 pounds. Another step in the same direction is the compulsory admixture to wheat and rye flour of the flours obtained from barley and corn, or of starch from potatoes. Germany, Italy, Belgium, Norway and Spain, and even wheat exporting countries like Hungary, Jugoslavia and Rumania, use these devices. In some areas in Spain the proportion of wheat in bread flour is reported to be only 50 percent, the rest being admixtures of corn meal, barley flour or bean meal.[iii]

Similar techniques are applied to other foodstuffs. Whole milk is reserved primarily for children. Calves are cut off from whole milk except in their first weeks of life. All remaining milk is manufactured into butter, cheese or condensed milk; while skim milk, buttermilk, and even whey are saved for direct human consumption. Germany distributes a war food called "Migetti," consisting of whey-protein, potato starch, and several other mixtures. Soybeans grown in southeastern Europe, heretofore used exclusively for extraction of oil and animal feed, are now used for human food on a large scale, especially in the German army.

IV

One of the chief methods of food retrenchment is in connection with animal husbandry. Normally only 35 percent of the grain consumed in Europe is used for making bread. The remaining 65 percent is fed to animals. But it is better to eat less meat than to be short of bread. When farmers are called on to reduce their livestock they begin with chickens and pigs, because they are converters of grain and also because they can be replaced quickly when sufficient feed-grain supplies again become available. Denmark and Holland, whose vast exporting egg industries were formerly geared mainly to the British market, have reduced their chicken flocks materially. Denmark's flocks have shrunk from 15 to 7 million, and Holland's from 28 to 20 million. In Norway and Belgium the same thing has happened. Hogs are always raised for slaughter, and farmers are accustomed to adjusting the number they raise to the feed supplies available. The herds of pigs in countries dependent on large feed imports were heavily culled. Denmark sold live pigs to Germany until she had reduced her pig stock from 3.1 to 1.5 million. Holland and Sweden canned pork for reserves.

Cattle are more valuable and slow-growing, so action on them has been less drastic. Up to date nothing has occurred which would indicate any dangerous depletion in this great capital asset of Europe. Denmark culled 200,000 cows out of 1.6 million, and 200,000 heifers out of 650,000, so as to keep up dairy production in spite of the feed shortage.[iv] Holland reduced her cattle by 18 percent. The daily press has treated sensible adjustments like these in two prominent export agricultural countries as highly sensational. Actually, there are as yet no indications that the total productive livestock herd of Europe has been critically reduced. The period of active military operations on land was so short that, so far as is known, there was only insignificant destruction of farm animals. In France the war loss is said to have been the worst. Yet Pierre Caziot, Minister for Agriculture, stated late in May that from all causes France now has a "deficit" of 1.2 million head of cattle. As she had 15.6 million head of cattle in 1938, her stock is temporarily 8 percent below normal.[v] The slaughter referred to above cannot be considered a net loss, because practically all the meat either was added to reserves or was currently consumed. How serious a shortage of animal products will ensue depends on many developments, none of which can be foretold with any certainty either by optimists or pessimists.

However, a reduction in the number of farm animals is only one of the measures used to help solve the farmer's war problems. Next comes a change in the animals' bill of fare. They have to get along with less concentrated feed, such as protein-bearing oilcake and grain, and eke it out with more fishmeal and seafood scrap, more beet-sugar molasses, and more potatoes. In real emergencies, leaves from trees are harvested, dried, and compressed. Off the shores of Scandinavia quantities of certain sorts of seaweed are fished out and fed to the cattle.

Modern chemistry also comes to the rescue by producing cellulose-feed. In Norway, Finland and Sweden, all great wood-exporting countries, new cellulose-feed factories are in operation and are expanding. Cordwood is processed into a feed pulp with a digestible nutrient content equivalent to 85 percent of that of good feed grain. Norway let contracts for 100,000 tons of this pulp in 1940, and for 150,000 tons for the first six months of 1941, for domestic consumption.[vi] Germany is constructing two large factories for processing feed cellulose out of pulp imported from Norway. The price of this processed feed is kept at the level of natural feeds of equal nutritive value. By-products are alcohol and feed yeast, rich in protein.

V

Since winter is the period of real worry, the European governments are acting to save all the perishable summer food possible. Southern France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany have set up numerous factories for drying vegetables. Since tin is scarce, and the supply of lacquered sheet-iron cans is short, quick freezing, cold storage, and salting are widely used.

Plans are being made, too, to draw on such potential but unused food resources as exist in Europe, especially in the east and south. Actually, however, the chance for large developments within the next year or so is not impressive. More can be expected from the intelligence and equipment of the farmers of densely populated countries like Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and France than by the development of the unused natural resources of more backward countries. Later on, however, if the need persists, these will come into new production.

On the whole, the hostilities in Western Europe, caused remarkably little destruction of farms, livestock and implements. Belgium was even able, last year, to grow and harvest an excellent sugar beet crop. Of 5,000 farm houses destroyed in Norway, 3,000 were rebuilt by the fall of 1940 or replaced with prefabricated structures shipped from Sweden. In many countries the fall seeding of 1940 considerably expanded the acreage of short crops. The spring seeding of 1941 has been intensified by emergency planning, the pressure of great publicity, and, in some countries, compulsory labor. In Holland, Denmark and Switzerland, which have had great experience in agricultural coöperation and planning, such methods present no new problems in principle. Holland has prohibited the cultivation of flower bulbs and seeds and has encouraged the use of flower gardens for raising small fruit and vegetables. Belgium's aim is to grow 60 percent more wheat and 20 percent more potatoes. In France, the Vichy Government has contracted with farmers to grow 500,000 acres of potatoes, and has put both premiums and penalties into the contracts.[vii] Contracts have also been let on a large scale for sugar beet production, for vegetables to go to the drying plants, and for oilseed. Special awards are offered for well-kept olive trees.

The famine-fighting crops par excellence are potatoes and sugar beets, for they produce several times as much energy per acre as do grain or grass. So all the European countries with any experience in them at all are going in for a maximum production. These hoe crops require labor, draft power and fertilizer in quantity; but none of these is scarce, except for phosphate fertilizer. The latter is being shipped in to some extent from Morocco and Russia, and even if a shortage persists it is doubtful whether it will curtail production in the years just ahead. Had agriculture been motorized to the same degree in Europe as in Soviet Russia, the shortage of motor fuels might have produced famine conditions by now. As it is, the farmers are complaining, but on the whole it seems that Europe's relatively small number of tractors is being supplied somehow or other, either with gasoline or with substitute fuels. Horses are again available in the conquered countries since the armies disbanded, and oxen fill some gaps.

Germany continues to intensify the cultivation of her own farms and of those in the annexed areas, mainly by plowing up pastures and turning them to sugar beets and potatoes. Favored by good weather, the 1940 potato crop totaled 53 million tons, compared to the average of 44 million tons in 1929-1933. This additional 9 million tons is the equivalent of 2,250,000 tons of grain. The acreage of sugar beets has doubled since 1932. It not only provides more sugar, but each acre yields from five to eight times as much cattle feed as it would if it were sown to grain.

Europe's real shortage, that in fats, will become less acute as the various re-arrangements become effective. Larger potato crops and more molasses and dried sugar beets will contribute feed for fattening more hogs. But the direct attack on the fat shortage is through increased cultivation of oilseeds. This represents a reversal of historical trends. In 1870 Europe grew most of its own oilseeds. But in the succeeding 70 years it turned more and more to less expensive tropical and marine sources of supply and utilized the freed acreage for better paying crops. Now in view of the scarcity of fats, European farmers once more have begun to cultivate the poppy, rape, mustard, sunflower, flax and hemp of their grandfathers. In 1940 Germany grew 918,840 acres of rapeseed, flax and hemp, compared with almost none seven years ago. Little Denmark is planting 889,200 acres of oilseeds, or 12 percent of her total cultivated area, in order to become independent in margarine raw materials by fall. Holland, Belgium and France are following suit. In all the Danubian countries, great subsidies are offered for growing more oilseeds, including sunflowers. Cotton and soybeans, that miraculous all-round foodstuff, are being grown in southeastern Europe also. Some of the changes are still in the blue-print stage, but most of them are on the way to becoming reality. The oilseeds help not only for their primary purpose but also to fill the protein feed gap, because the cake or residue left over after extraction of the oil has a high protein content.

In countries where cultivated land is scarce, especially Holland, Switzerland and Norway, energetic efforts are being made to find more acres that can be brought under cultivation. In Holland, the new Polders of the drained Zuider Zee are being plowed up ahead of schedule. Switzerland has broken in 100,000 acres of new land, and Norway is working along similar lines. Finland is clearing 740,000 acres of worthless woodlands with American bulldozers and resettling on them 40,000 farm families from the lost Karelian province. Of the new area, 75,000 acres will be put into barley, 50,000 acres into oats, and 120,000 acres into potatoes. These countries are also increasing their sheep flocks so as to utilize the scanty grazing facilities of the mountain ranges to the limit. In all countries, urban populations are expanding their kitchen gardens.

The seas -- "salt water deserts" to inlanders -- have always been regarded by the seafaring nations as rich storehouses of both food and fodder; and in this emergency they naturally turned to them at once.

Until December last the Dutch and Belgian fishing fleets were kept at anchor by the British bombardment or by order of the Germans who feared sabotage or aid to Britain. Now to some extent they have begun steaming and sailing again. The Norwegians and Danes have continued doing so right along. Most of the adverse conditions confronting the Norwegian fishermen were soon mastered. Charcoal gas generators met the shortage of diesel oil, and extension of the coastal fishing zone to 30 miles offshore gave greater opportunities for a good catch. Offshore whaling, which had been forbidden, is now practiced and yields a considerable amount of oil. The Danes are expanding both their fishing ports and their fishing fleet.

As a result, since last summer both Norway and Denmark have been shipping fish in bulk to Germany, Holland, Belgium and elsewhere. In 1940 the Norwegians caught 1,070,000 tons of fish, as compared with 1,030,000 tons the preceding year.[viii] Their herring catch was the highest since the record catch of 1911. This was due partly to exceptionally strong runs of herring, partly to intensive fishing. Some fish are eaten locally, of course. But the bulk are shipped southward or else provide oil and a residue used as fishmeal or fertilizer.

Modern chemistry renders this crop from the sea even more valuable. Condensed fish preserves form a product similar to corned beef, and hydrogenated fish oil serves as raw material for margarine, shortening or salad oil. The sea also supplies valuable sea weed that can be used for cattle feed, for filling material in the manufacture of soap, and as a fishmeal concentrate for hogs and chickens.

Especial attention is paid by the various national food administrations to maintaining the supply of so-called "protective" foodstuffs, i.e. those rich in vitamins. Last winter Germany started distributing vitamin C doses free of charge to nursing mothers, children and coal miners. The army diet also is carefully stepped up with vitamins. Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Denmark and Norway also supply low-income groups with margarine fortified with vitamins A and D.

The foregoing illustrations are intended to show that the food situation in Europe is not be be viewed solely in the framework of a given set of facts, but as something that can be modified by human intelligence and energy. All the possible means of adjustment taken together do not solve the food problem or bring back the prewar status. However, in combination with rationing, they do make the situation bearable. Famine may strike particular localities that are overcrowded with refugees; but so far we have no reliable reports that this is the case. In some countries the situation is certainly stringent. It is worse where there is general disorganization and a lack of administrative efficiency, and particularly where, as in Spain, the effects of civil war have prevented the effective use of the various means of adjustment described above. In other areas, like the General Government of Poland, the adjustments fail to bring general relief because the whole population is kept under what might be called a permanent state of arrest.

VI

There is still another branch of the campaign against famine. This is under the command of foreign trade strategists, in close coöperation with the national banks and various departments of government. The changes in European trade since September 1939 are breath-taking, largely because the disappearance of customs barriers and the centralization of trade direction in German hands has resulted in more specialization in chosen "belts." Germany is hard at the job of rearranging all trade routes away from the oceans. The Reichsbank, through its Deutsche Verrechnungs Kasse, is the clearing center for the cobweb of German-controlled barter trade. Food, feed, fertilizer and industrial raw materials are given special attention. Where high prices are not sufficient to move commodities in the desired direction at the desired speed, political and military pressure are called into play. Trade becomes amazingly manœuvrable under the pressure of dire need and the coercion of an impatient tyrant.

Shipments inside the Continent, both north and south and east and west, are the most important; but a certain degree of relief also comes to Germany and German-dominated lands from Soviet Russia. The British sea blockade cannot touch the 2,000-mile Russian border, and Moscow is accelerating her deliveries across it, partly at any rate because of her own need for industrial goods. German imports from Russia have soared from a low of 47 million marks, in 1938, to a peak of 436 million marks. Foodstuffs and feed used to hold a minor place in Russian exports to Germany, but this has been changed somewhat since the annexation of several food exporting regions -- the three Baltic states, Bessarabia and part of Bukovina. Russia ships some grain to Finland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland and Germany, and also some oilseeds and butter.

Bulgaria receives fertilizer duty-free from Germany and in return ships corn, wheat, rapeseed, sunflower seeds and soybeans. Hungary and Rumania both trade mainly with Germany. Denmark and Italy have a barter agreement by which Italy ships rice, fruits, wine and tobacco, while Denmark ships eggs, bacon, dairy machinery and other machines. A Danish-Finnish trade agreement provides for shipments of sugar, salt pork, meat preserves and eggs by Denmark and of lumber and paper by Finland. In February 1941 Switzerland and Russia signed their first trade agreement since 1917. Under it Russia ships grain, timber, oil and cotton in return for Swiss boilers, turbines, hydraulic presses and precision instruments. But perhaps the best rod for measuring European intra-continental trade is the volume of German foreign trade. Following the outbreak of the war it was curtailed in almost all categories; by the end of 1940 it had attained the prewar level, and it is constantly rising.

Finally, some of the "real" though hard-pressed neutrals, such as Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Portugal, as well as "mugwump" neutrals like unoccupied France and Spain, receive a certain amount of food from overseas under British navicerts. Switzerland has even chartered a small merchant marine which shuttles back and forth between Lisbon and Genoa. On one extreme rim of the continent, Finland receives food from Russia, Argentina and the United States; on the other side, Spain receives grain and other foodstuffs from Argentina. France has obtained grain shipments in considerable quantity from Morocco, Algeria and Tunis, and also from Argentina via Algeria.

All of this trade struggles with innumerable obstacles and hazards. Railroads, rivers, and canals are overburdened. Coastal shipping suffers from the effects of British bombardments, the blockade, and a shortage of vessels and port facilities. Swiss newspapers record the Odysseys of the imports that come from Lisbon via the Mediterranean and Genoa, or overland from Lisbon.[ix] But the obstacles are not, under present circumstances, insurmountable. There is no general breakdown of transportation.

VII

By the time these words appear in print the critical season, from the food point of view, will have passed for this year. The new crop of vegetables and early fruit, and the dairy produce from cows returned to pasture, will relieve the greatest strain of the last months of the grain year. Towards the end of June and in July the first yield of the new grain will also become available. The shortage which will still persist can then be transferred to the spring of 1942. How much that shortage will be depends mainly on the size of the new crop. Thus far the crop reports have indicated generally favorable weather conditions.

The chances are, then, that Europe will be able in this Second World War to keep the wolf from the door, at least for another nine or ten months, and this despite the great initial strain of the food situation in Belgium, Central Poland and Spain. It was possible to bring the situation under control so rapidly because activite hostilities were so brief. If the war drags along for another two or three years, and especially if the United States actively participates, the picture will change again. The transportation system will deteriorate under intensified aerial bombardment, and the spread of economic, social and political disorder will break down the careful systems of the food administrations. But so long as Europe is in the grip of a tyrant who can maintain physical order, and so long as the process of wresting his booty from him has not actually begun, there seems no reason to believe that the food situation will grow worse, and much to believe that it will improve. Only when the combined American and British output of war materials begins to overtake that of the Reich will the European food situation require a careful reappraisal. Unless crops fail badly, we can provisionally shelve discussion of it until next spring.

[i] Figure calculated from data of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Department of Agriculture, January 1940.

[ii] See General Goering's paper, the National Zeitung, Essen, January 7, 1941, p. 9.

[iii] New York Times, March 18, 1941, p. 3.

[iv] Neue Zürcher Zeitung, November 15, 1940; Die Tat, January 29, 1941, no. 24.

[v] New York Times, May 25, 1941, p. 32.

[vi] National Zeitung, February 7, 1941.

[vii] Frankfurter Zeitung, February 21, 1941.

[viii] Frankfurter Zeitung, February 5, 1941.

[ix] Neue Zürcher Zeitung, March 23, 1941.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now