Why was there lack of food during the WW2 in the UK?

I understand the lack of food in the countries occupied by Germans, as they recruited a lot of agricultural products for their war machinery. But why there had to be ration books in the non-occupied UK, which had to feed more or less the same amount of people as before the war? What was the mechanism leading to the lack of food there?

  • Is the Empire included in the UK? Aug 11, 2015 at 10:33
  • Funny that the amount of food rationed was reducing from the end of the war to the lowest point in 1946, because of the wind storm.
    – Him
    Aug 11, 2015 at 16:59
  • @SamuelRussell - I am not sure if you meant your comment as a joke or not. So for clarity: no, the Empire is not included in the UK in my question. Aug 12, 2015 at 6:35
  • It isn't meant as a joke, as one of the answers mentioned, the government of the UK deliberately caused mass starvation in the empire during the period. Aug 12, 2015 at 7:38
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    Him's mention of the wind storm is presumably referring to the rain of 1946 which ruined Britain's wheat crop, followed by a very harsh winter which crippled coal and fuel transport and supply, then a transportation and dock worker's strike in 1947. This was all after six years of war left food and fuel stockpiles at an all time low.
    – Schwern
    Aug 17, 2015 at 21:36

4 Answers 4


There wasn't a lack of food in the UK, not in the sense that people weren't getting enough to eat or were suffering malnutrition. What there was is a lack of variety of food. Anything which was imported (citrus, tropical fruits, tea, coffee, sugar), expensive (meat) or important to the war effort (fats, meat, canned anything) would be rationed. Rationing was also introduced to prevent hoarding, shortages, price gouging and ensure everyone got their fair share.

Ian McCollum spent a week eating according to the British rationing plan to see what it's like. His British Ration Week series records his findings, as well as discusses the rationing plan in detail, its architect Lord Woolton, and its egalitarian aspects. I'd suggest watching it to get a visceral feel for what they were eating.

It has even been claimed that people in the UK were healthier during the war because they were eating a healthier diet prescribed by the Ministry Of Food. The ration cards ensured everyone got enough, and also that few ate to excess. The study assumed everyone "could eat as much potato, vegetables, and wholemeal bread as they wanted". This was a fair assumption, they were not rationed during the war.

The UK had to feed a population of about 50 million during WWII. At the start of the war it imported...

70% of its food; this required 20 million tons of shipping a year. 50% of meat was imported, 70% of cheese and sugar, 80% of fruits, 70% of cereals and fats, 91% of butter. Of this, 1/6th of meat imports, 1/4 of butter imports and 1/2 of cheese imports came from New Zealand alone, a long ways away by shipping lanes.

It's wrong to conclude that Britain could not feed itself. Some of this would be imported as luxuries, others for economic reasons, that it was cheaper to import food than produce it locally. When Britain realized it was going to war, local food production was ramped up. (If anyone has UK agricultural production numbers for 1935-1950 that would be great)

On top of food, Britain imported fuel, raw materials and manufactured goods. Wartime requirements increased these needs dramatically requiring a million tons of imported material per week to stay alive and in the fight. Wartime priorities meant luxurious food items would be skipped.

British shipping was quite vulnerable to attack, and the early loss of France and Norway allowed the Germans to put aircraft and submarines even closer to the UK. The British were losing hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping each month putting further strain on their supply line.

Finally, the wartime needs meant that much of the traditional farming population were needed for the war effort. By war's end 7.6 million people, 15% of the population, served in the British military. Plus more working in factories producing war goods. This left a shortage of farm labour. The Women's Land Army was formed, first as volunteers and later by conscription, to make up the shortfall.

Farmers increased the number of acres under cultivation from 12,000,000 to 18,000,000, and the farm labor force was expanded by a fifth, thanks especially to the Women's Land Army.

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    The UK wasn't alone in this either. There was rationing in the USA during the war as well on sugar and fats, etc. I can't find a link, but I got the impression once upon a time that this was at least in part to give folks on the "home front" a way to feel like they were contributing.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 11, 2015 at 11:17
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    I'm afraid i think this answer jumps to wrong conclusions without thorough research. I can tell you from first hand accounts that food in general WAS in short supply and especially meats very tightly rationed. Claims that it was healthier seem ludicrous when they also lacked fresh fruit and veg.
    – JamesRyan
    Aug 11, 2015 at 14:36
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    @JamesRyan: it's counterintuitive, but I've certainly seen 'generally healthier' discussed before. No fresh fruit... but also no malnutrition, and a reliably achieved minimum standard. Aug 11, 2015 at 20:43
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    @Andrew enough not to starve but not a prolonged healthy diet, lacking in many vitamins. Many people from that generation have longterm health problems and notably shorter than the generations either side.
    – JamesRyan
    Aug 11, 2015 at 23:29
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    @Schwern while they were not rationed, fuel was in limited supply and cities had no agricultural space for local gardening so for the majority even vegetables were not as abundantly available as people are suggesting.
    – JamesRyan
    Aug 12, 2015 at 9:22

UK, like most other developed (and not so developed) countries, does not produce all food that it consumes. Some food is imported. In the case of UK during WW2 much of the food was imported. As the war started,

a) the oceans became dangerous. Because of the German cruisers and submarines.

b) the shipping capacities were needed for other purposes (to ship troops and military supplies) So there was a shortage of shipping.

For these reasons, there was a shortage of food, and they had to introduce rationing.

A less important reason in the case of UK, but important for other countries like Soviet Union, was the shortage of labor in agriculture, because of the military draft. But I don't think this third reason was important for UK.

EDIT. On the discussion in comments about "when was the world globalized". It is well known that the major source of food for ancient Rome was Egypt. And sometimes this was reason for major wars.

  • So had the world already been so globalised in the 1940s then? Aug 11, 2015 at 4:44
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    @HonzaZidek In short? Yes. Britain had a world-spanning seafaring empire since the 1700s.
    – Schwern
    Aug 11, 2015 at 6:35
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    @HonzaZidek It's been globalised long before, actually. The key difference between then and now was trade protectionism - the doctrine where an empire's dependent areas (colonies, protectorates...) depended on their parent empire for trade. Basically, the empire said what you could export and import and at what price, and they took their share (tariffs). What we'd usually call "globalisation" started as trade and business got more and more free, and those tariffs and laws disappeared. We're going back to protectionism nowadays (EU is a great example of a protectionist empire).
    – Luaan
    Aug 11, 2015 at 11:02
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    @HondaZidek there's "globalized" in the sense that Thomas Friedmann means it in "The Lexus and the Olive Branch" but that's a different thing than the idea that the world has been dependent on trade since the beginning of civilizations. For instance, perhaps you've heard of the "trade routes" across the Levant, or that Columbus sailed around the world across the Atlantic in an attempt to find a shorter trade route to India.
    – Raydot
    Aug 11, 2015 at 17:09

UK you see was prepared for the ravages of the incoming war. Proper policymaking during war times prevented UK from the ravages the axis occupied countries experienced. UK also had an advantage of having occupied a country like India from where they supplied food to both the civilians & the soldiers however this was also the reason of massive food shortages in India which resulted in the 1943 Bengal Famine.

  • 6
    Welcome to History:SE. Please expand your answer, and provide supporting data and links. You say that India provided food. Do you mean directly to the UK or do you mean to the soldiers in India? If you can cite some books as reference and point to food grain data, that would be appreciated.
    – Rajib
    Aug 11, 2015 at 16:56
  • I mean directly both to the english civilians and the british army Aug 12, 2015 at 0:59
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    Can you refer to data in this regard? As your answer stands now, it is of poor quality because it lacks citations and links to data. I do hope you will stick around and make the effort to research your answers, even if you started on a premise.
    – Rajib
    Aug 12, 2015 at 9:22
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    I unsure of what this answer is saying. I doubt that much food was shipped from India to the UK during 1943 (shipping rationalisation meant there was very little really long haul shipping). Supplying the UK with food was not the cause of the 1943 Bengal famine. So I think mostly this answer is not particularly relevant, Thats said India did contribute a huge amount to the British war effort , and the Bengal Famine was at horrible caused by British management and the response was lacking any real concern for the Indian population.
    – pugsville
    Aug 13, 2015 at 3:31
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    The answer is overly simplistic and the reasons for the famine are in dispute. Among the factors are: cyclones, fungus and tidal waves severely damaged food production in late 1942; Bengal had imported food from Burma, but its loss to the Japanese in 1942 cut off that supply; refugees from Burma and the expansion of the Indian army put further strains on the food supply; provinces with food surpluses made it difficult to export to famine provinces; a lack of a unified food policy in India; unreliable food statistics made it difficult for officials to act.
    – Schwern
    Aug 17, 2015 at 22:04

Rationing and ultimately food "shortages" are an inevitable consequence of command economies.

What happens is that the government orders that certain goods must be sold at a particular prices. They do this so that THEY, meaning the government need only pay low amount to feed their soldiers. This process is contagious, because if you just fix the price of, say, wheat, then farmers will stop growing wheat and grow corn instead. Therefore, ALL prices have to be fixed.

Once prices are fixed, production decreases because it is less profitable to make the good. Therefore, you have smaller amounts of goods at lower prices. Everyone scrambles to buy at the artificially low prices. For various reasons suppliers will often prefer to sell to retail customers, not to the government at these low prices. To stop this the government uses "rationing". Private people are only allowed to buy limited amounts, all the rest must be sold to the government (at the artificially low price).

In many cases even this is unworkable, so the government simply makes it illegal to sell to anyone except the government. For example, in both England and the USA it was illegal to sell butter or eggs or meat to private people. Only the government (or privileged people like doctors) could legal buy such things. Private people could only legally buy margarine and other such substitutes.

My grandmother described the margarine she (and everyone else) had to buy instead of butter. It came in a plastic bag and had a packet of a red dye. You would empty the dye packet into the margarine bag, which was a white goo. Then you would squish it around inside the bag and it would turn yellow. That was your "butter". The limited amount of real butter went to government officials and soldiers.

Question Politics Radar

Obviously this a politically sensitive subject. As can been seen from the apologetic nature of the other (so-called) answers (and nit-picking my answer), noone wants to suggest that Britain (or the USA) did something wrong or oppressive by rationing. Thus, what you may read (even in economics textbooks) is a long list of rationales and excuses--explanations of why rationing was "necessary". One answer above even went so far as to excuse rationing because it supposedly was HEALTHIER, LOL. By that logic we should praise concentration camp starvation because it cleaned out the arteries of all the inmates, no heart disease! My answer above honesty explains why rationing occurs and why it causes shortages. You can read economists like Mises for more detailed explanations along the same lines. Mises, who believed rationing is never necessary, brilliantly led Austria's economy to stability as a chief advisor and minister, even though Austria LOST the Great War. Compare to Britain which WON WW2, yet was still rationing years later.

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    Got any citations that this was the situation in the UK during WWII?
    – Schwern
    Aug 11, 2015 at 5:07
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    "For example, in both England and the USA it was illegal to sell butter or eggs or meat to private people." This is patently false. They were rationed. That means you could purchase only a certain amount per week, tracked on a ration card, from private shops. youtube.com/watch?v=o9wNJ78S2GY#t=1m05s The margarine you describe was a result of a butter and animal fat shortage in the US, plus silly legislation preventing dying margarine to look like butter. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margarine#History
    – Schwern
    Aug 11, 2015 at 10:45
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    Your assertion is not merely that it was scarce, but that it was illegal to sell to private people. This is false. Do you have a citation otherwise?
    – Schwern
    Aug 11, 2015 at 23:36
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    @TylerDurden In the answer, you claimed prices were fixed (and low) but buying some things was illegal. Now you are telling us that nothing was forbidden but prices could in fact be arbitrarily high. Which one is it? And isn't this the market at work, just the opposite of command-and-control?
    – Relaxed
    Aug 13, 2015 at 7:29
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    I did some research. Raising of pigs by private citizens in the UK was encouraged to provide supplementary protein and make use of food waste. "Pig clubs" were formed to raise pigs. They were allowed extra rations to feed the pigs. Slaughter was regulated with a certain amount being sold to the government. This is regulation and rationing. To outright claim it's "illegal" without further explanation is dishonest.
    – Schwern
    Aug 17, 2015 at 23:48

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