I have a memory from around 1945: I’m in our local supermarket with my mother, looking at her ration book. It has stamps of different colours; the purple stamps have tanks on them. Both cash and a stamp could be exchanged for key staples — sugar, coffee, butter and meat.
No stamp, no staple.
That was how everyone shopped in Canada and the U.S. in wartime. It was a nuisance, but it ensured that everyone got a chance to buy at least the basics.
Three-quarters of a century later, Canada, like the rest of the world, is about to be caught in another food crisis — in short order from the previous one a year ago. This one is likely to be worse than the last, which Vladimir Putin triggered by attacking Ukraine’s agricultural exports. It’s going to be ugly, but if we respond wisely, Canadians will actually get through it better fed and healthier than they are now.
Putin is largely responsible for the current crisis. He’s ditched the UN-negotiated agreement that allowed Ukrainian grain to be shipped across the Black Sea; claiming any ship on a course to or from a Ukrainian port will be treated as a military target. Russian missiles have also attacked storage facilities in Chornomorsk, Mykolaiv and Odesa, Ukraine’s major seaport, destroying at least 60,000 tonnes of wheat and drawing sharp criticism from the United Nations.
Imagine blowing up the grain terminal at the south end of Vancouver’s Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, and you’ll have a fair idea of the seriousness of Putin’s attacks.
Meanwhile, India has announced a ban on exports of most kinds of rice. The Indian government said the move will “ensure adequate availability,” of rice domestically, slowing the rising cost of food to ordinary Indians ahead of upcoming elections. India provides more than 40 per cent of global rice exports, meaning potential shortages in global markets.
Shortages of wheat and rice ought to be good news for breadbasket countries like Canada, but they catch us at an awkward time when drought on the Prairies is hurting grain production. The Canadian Drought Monitor shows severe or extreme drought over much of B.C., the Prairies and Ontario. Farmers may get higher prices for their wheat, corn and pulses, but those prices will be passed straight to consumers, both here and abroad.
Extraordinary heat and drought are also affecting the western and southern U.S., the Mediterranean, the Middle East and China.
“Across the globe, up to 783 million people do not have enough food and more than 40 million people in 51 countries are at ‘emergency’ or worse levels of hunger,” estimates the World Food Program. “Parts of Yemen, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Nigeria may be close to, or are already in, the grip of famine.”
Conflict is a major cause, the WFP says: “Sixty per cent of the world’s hungry people live in zones affected by conflict, which is the main driver in eight out of 10 of the worst hunger crises.”
The WFP also lists climate change, natural disasters, inequality, food loss and COVID-19 as factors in world hunger. In Canada, these once may have felt like other people’s problems. But they’re increasingly becoming ours.
Impending straight-out famine is a result of “food protectionism,” writes Jessica Wildfire on Substack. Food exporters like India may like the revenues from overseas food sales, but they’re also wary of the implications of their own people paying more for staples — or going without them.
Faced with a similar shortfall in wheat or beef production, it makes sense our own government would try to feed people within our borders first. But in a world of global inequality, it would immediately face scrutiny for leaving poorer countries without crucial foodstuffs.
Canada has been in this predicament before, in both world wars. Wars consume astounding amounts of food. Every worker and their family must also have enough food, or strikes will slow production. Every soldier must be fed, and stressed allies must be supported. Food must be as cheap as possible, and available to everyone regardless of their means amid scarce resources.
The answer during the world wars was rationing. It could work again.
Learning from wartime solutions
It wasn’t just rationing — in Canada, the Mackenzie King government imposed a price freeze first, then gradually brought in rationing of sugar, tea and coffee, butter and then meat. According to historian Ian Mosby, Ottawa had several reasons.
First, recruiters were rejecting too many young Canadians for service because they had been malnourished during the Depression. Second, Canada was committed to supplying Britain with huge quantities of food. Finally, civilian workers and their families needed good food to ensure their productivity and support for the war.
Eating more and better
As a result, Mosby says, Canadians actually ate more and better food than they had before rationing. Newspapers and community-based cookbooks provided recipes to stretch rationed food, far less food was wasted, and the government made good nutrition a patriotic duty. Ottawa also took charge of agriculture, cutting back on some wheat production while boosting feed grains and pork.
Faced with climate-driven food shortages around the world, we might do something very similar. As tempting as food protectionism might be, we would have to earmark much of our production for export — some for profit, and much as a gift to countries that can’t feed themselves. But we would also have to ensure that every Canadian could afford a nutritious diet at an affordable price.
That would mean wartime-level control of agriculture and distribution. The big grocery chains couldn’t jack up prices; farmers and ranchers would raise the crops and livestock that government required of them, at a guaranteed price and with subsidies for everything from water supply to transportation.
One sure bet: pulses. Canada is already the world’s largest exporter of peas, chickpeas, dry beans and lentils. Now the industry is set on developing ways to enrich other foods with pulse-based protein.
Taxing ultra-processed foods
Knowing more about nutrition than we did 80 years ago, we wouldn’t ration ultra-processed foods like frozen pizzas and soft drinks. We’d just tax them at, say, 200 per cent, and put the revenues into lowering prices for more nutritious foods. Ultra-processed foods, alcohol and tobacco are commercial determinants of health. By heavily taxing them all, we could subsidize good food and improve public health at the same time. We could also export food at lower prices or as outright gifts to help ensure their social stability.
Of course black markets would spring up everywhere, as they did during the Second World War, but arresting the occasional wealthy racketeer would be something of a deterrent. Corporations that supplied black markets would be instantly nationalized, without compensation for their shareholders.
Some corporations would scream about socialist tyranny and depriving kids of sugary cereals, but consumers would see the improvement right at the checkout — cheap, tasty, nutritious food even in the midst of floods and drought. Even imported staples like coffee would be cheaper because we’d trade for it with our own food exports.
Wartime rationing ended in Canada not long after the war. Future rationing, as a way to deal with climate disasters, could be with us for a long, long time.