Monday, December 5, 2016

An Agro-Technical Appendix to Postblogging Technology, October 1946, II: Bad Food, Bad Land, Bad People

"The greatest thing since sliced bread."
I'm going to reprise a bit from last week. I still can't get over the fact that when people in 1946 got nostalgic for the Nineties, in their frame of reference, they were looking back at 1926.

Margie some more. Please ignore the central plot and enjoy the music, instead while contemplating your life, only with the 2000s as the Great Depression, and the Obama Administration as World War II. 

Last time, I repurposed that as comfort to the country that's about to be "run" by a narcissist for two years, maybe three, tops. Things have been worse! (Also worse, the Thirty Years War, Late Bronze Age Collapse, the Younger Dryas.) This time, it is to drill home the point that the Great Depression was a living, recent memory in 1946. This, too, you will have heard, especially if you're my age. You will have heard endless lectures about how people learned not to waste things in the Depression, about all the lessons that it apparently takes 25% unemployment, people dying of starvation, and a follow-on world war to learn

The old folk talked and talked about it. It's almost like they were traumatised by it all. One day, it's all relentless progress: Continental Baking is releasing its miraculous new, sliced bread nationally. The next, people are starving in the streets, out in public. (As opposed to starving in tar paper shacks up the holler.) Worse, there were all these experts popping up and saying that it was all unavoidable, and systemic, and that it would never end.  The best you could hope for in the future was a job in the Works Reliefs Administration, because the implication of an excess of savings over investment possibilities was the slow retreat of the economy via deflation into --well, into something. Back to the Stone Age. maybe?

 Instead, as we know, it ended with a world war, austerity, a global famine --and then, somehow, through it and beyond it, the best fed, richest consuming public ever.  Even more strikiingly, in the mid-1960s, Europe became a net grain exporter.

The paradox of the Great Depression was that it was the last agricultural slump. Farmers have done poorly in recessions since, but this was the last one in which you had people starving and, at the same time, farmers who were unable to sell their crops. This kind of thing had popped up before, and represented such a bizarre failure of the market to "clear" supply and demand that previous generations of political economists had either denied that it was happening at all, created elaborate conspiracy theories, or, more practically, used phrases like"ready money" and "discount rate" that implied that they understood what was going on, and had solutions. (Which is the most frightening thing of all, because if there are solutions that no-one's trying, it's probably because they don't like them.)

Lizzie Collingham leads off her discussion of this hard-to-understand paradox of hungry people and abandoned farms with a discussion of England that focusses on the nutritionist John Boyd Orr. To some extent, the debate was over professionalisation. As a young, student teacher, Orr had been appalled by the evidence of malnutrition he had seen in the slums of Glasgow, malnutrition that was not always obviously linked to a lack of food, as such. For example, rickets was everywhere, and notoriously did not answer to a pauper's diet, however generous. 

Over the preceding decades, nutritional science had discovered that food, as well as providing energy ("calories"), supplied a variety of trace elements your "vitamins," your "minerals," your protein. I'm going to assume that I don't need to say anything more than health class about how these work, only clarify the Dirty Thirties language, which foods rich in all these sorts of things were deemed to be "protective foods." (The great thing about the label is that you can lump things people like to eat with things that people have to be forced to eat. Otherwise, there wouldn't be much of a point in being a nutritionist at all. Have some Lunch Lady Doris.) The actually effective "protective food" in most human diets is fresh meat and dairy, but the diet police come all over faint when it looks like they might be asked to endorse people eating stuff they enjoy, and of course eating enough meat so quickly becomes eating too much meat, so they have a point.

Professor Collingham loses the plot on the subject of the diet police, but remembers to come back to it, with special reference to the way we live now. I, on the other hand, am interested in the secular stagnation angle, so I want to focus on the way that "protective foods" served to obscure the actual issues at stake then, as opposed to now

This is where it is hardly accidental that the label is vague enough that it can include foods that no-one wants to eat at all. Collingham notes the postwar efforts to feed Britain on whale meat and snoek, while the Simpsons clip brings us offal and America's subsidised school lunch programme.

I want to hold off on the postwar, though. There's more than enough to get into in this post without covering off wartime changes in agriculture. In the United Kingdom, the salient through line leads from the 1936 controversy over Food, Health and Income controversy to the wartime-and-postwar wholemeal "austerity loaf,"

It may look appetising to  you, but spare a thought for those of us with narrow bites. I don't much like the taste of wholemeal, as opposed to whole grain bread, but that's distinctly secondary to the difficulty I have chewing it.

In 1936, it was clear, or at leasts seemed clear, that the dole had vanquished hunger in England. Scotland was a bit of a separate issue, and the war would expose cracks in the consensus, but at least there were no more people starving to death in the English streets. This is what made Orr's 1936 report, published in book form by Macmillan in 1936, so controversial. By documenting high rates of malnutrition-related diseases and associated excess mortality rates in industrial districts, he showed that the dole had not eliminated chronic malnutrition. While the working class was getting enough to eat in terms of calories, they were short on "protective foods."

There were two ways that you could turn this into an argument about policy. The first was the most straightforward: the dole had to be increased until people could afford to buy protective foods. The second was more cloud-cuckoo utopian, and queried the Government's chosen policy of supporting a failing agricultural sector through supply management. Why did it make sense, a League of Nations committee (talk about utopian!) asked, to pay farmers not to produce protective foods? And the great thing about the vagueness of "protective foods" was that the Government could answer that  there was no point to either "solution," because the real problem was that the working class was too dumb to buy and eat "protective" foods. If the poor preferred to fill up on white bread and sweet tea so as to have money for booze and lottery tickets, etc, there wasn't any point in raising the dole, or abandong supply management. (The implicit alternative being to let prices and wages rise, which was clearly just insane.)

This argument does not wear well without a proffered alternative, so thank God for diet faddists going on about wheat germ, Stanley Baldwin must have said to himself. (It somehow seems in character that Neville Chamberlain preferred a wholemeal loaf.) The idea that people should be forced to stop eating white bread in favour of a dark loaf made of the whole grain, or some other equally punishing diet, was already well established. The war would make it mandatory.

And so it was determined, a priori, that the British working classes' declasse preference for "refined" white bread over "wholemeal" had led to these subclinical diseases of deficiency. This never made much sense. Orr was launched into this project by  rickets, a disease caused by a deficiency of Vitamin D and/or calcium. Neither of these is present in any quantity in flour, white or whole wheat. Both kinds of wheat are actually quite high in protein --assimilability is the issue in both white and brown breads.  Adding wheat germ back into flour does increase its Vitamin B content.

The problem here is that the working class British diet wasn't obviously short of Vitamin B. You can tell that by the fact that the British working class wasn't dead.  A diet short of the necessary amount of Vitamin B complex vitamins does not lead to a sub-clinical deficiency disease like rickets. It leads to  beri-beri or pellagria, and, soon enough, death.  A seasonal Vitamin B deficiency leads to outbreaks of beri-beri from which people recover, but the British working class diet of the 1930s wasn't really seasonal any more. It lacked pretty much any seasonal foods to start with!

This point wasn't as clear back in the day as it is today. The idea of a subclinical Vitamin B deficiency disease was enormously seductive, because rice and maize corn are deficient in B-complex vitamins compared with wheat flour, and beri-beri and pellagria did appear to be congenital diseases of the East and the American Souith, respectively. If there were a long term B-complex deficiency disease (leaving spinal bifida out of the conversation), it would probide a convenient explanation for the lethargy and backwardness of your Asian peasant that needed explaining back, back before the Vietnam War, and your Asian Tigers made that an embarrassingly racist and obsolete talking point. (What can I say? I remember it from one of E. C. Tubbs' Dumarest novels.) Once governments mandated the addition of B-complex vitamins to white flour back in WWII, it was pretty much a moot point, anyway. Although your humble grocery clerk now has to worry about people who are upset that their flour is being "enriched" with sinister chemicals, the battle is more usually joined on the dietary fibre front. There's a reason why people should be made to eat brown bread when they prefer white bread. It's just changed, is all.

If you're wondering, it's probably not completely irrelevant to point out here that the other thing that going to wholemeal bread accomplishes is to increase the "extraction rate," and thereby produce more bread from a given amount of North American grain. Before the war, the bran,to which the wheat germ tends to attach, was removed and fed to livestock, meat being much richer in B-complex vitamins than bread of any kind. Commercial millers resisted the idea of separating out the wheat germ and re-adding it (you're eating babies, babies!) because the oil in the germ tended to go rancid in storage. However, adding the germ and some of the bran back in brought the bulk of baking flour up from the 70% of traditional white bread up to 80% or more. This was clinically referred to as "increading the extraction rate," and whatever could be said about its virtues in increasing the protective value of bread, raising the extraction rate certainly reduced the amount of shipping required to bring North American flour to Britain.

So if the advantage of wholemeal loaf, apart from a frisson of moral superority, is that it eeks out limited shipping space, we're having a little difficulty seeing how to get America into the picture. After all, grain doesn't have to be shipped from America. It comes from America! That does not matter as much as it seems, because the point of this blog post is that in the face of this irremediable paradox of malnutrition and low farm prices, it is important to find a way to blame the poor for their own problems and discover a reason why there's no help for it, and certainly no call for public policy intervention. A different framing just requires different scapegoats.

The Hoovermobile is an answer fired back by America's chosen scapegoats: "backwards farmers." The scare quotes being in honour of Will Rogers' observation about approximately the same class of people, to the effect that the reason their state legislatures ruled on "having their ancestry established by law" was that "[T]here must be some suspicion of doubt somewhere." (Of course, he was talking about evolution, or, in other words, about humans being descended from monkeys. Because of course he was.)

I'd prefer to stick to a gentle soul like Rogers here, but he doesn't fit the tone of this post as it is emerging. Instead, I'll look at an all-American ball of fun named Erskine Caldwell, author of a rapid-fire series of Southern Gothic scandal novels of 1929--33, of which either Tobacco Road or God's Little Acre is the most famous. Caldwell would want you to know, however, that he was no smut peddler, as I have just implied, but, rather a very serious-minded Problem Novelist. You know, the kind who identifies burning Social Issues of the Day.

Specifically: America's problem was that it had a vast class of peasant farmers, whose  main interest was extramarital sex, preferably involving rape, incest or rape and incest. Worse, when they could tear themselves away from the When not so engaged, they dabbled in farming, predictably ruining the land by letting the soil erode away.
Tina Louise as Griselda!

Soil erosion! That's your problem, right there. Well, that and bad farm management in general. Eventually, this class of white trash would ruin the country if they persisted in not moving to the city and getting jobs on the assembly line. Really, the only solution was a nice spot of gentle, humane, eugenic genocide. Once the owners were removed from their small plots, their "God's little acre," it could be concentrated in large, efficient, well-capitalised farms that could be worked by modern mechanised methods suitable to modern, scientific methods of soil conservation, etc.

You will recognise this as from the Wikipedia article on the Dust Bowl from which I scraped it. My point is that we are at risk of confusing a geographically and climactically specific event with an ill-informed generalisation about American farm management practices of the last century. 

One of the many, many things I like about Taste of War is that Collingham finds the memoirs of an Idaho farmer as a source when she comes to describe the wartime transition from tar paper shack to linoleum-floored house. "White trash" was not locally specific. We do not need regionalism, or a subliminal discourse of race (actually, race-miscegenation.) Rural poverty was a problem in every region of America. Farms weren't under-capitalised because the farms were too small, or because people unaccountably resisted tractors, or because of soil degradation. They were under-capitalised because farm prices were too low!

I'm tempted to say a great deal more about this. This has wound up being a story about rhetoric and scapegoats, rather than change in agriculture and agricultural technology. I will admit that taking "soil erosion" as a grand, rhetorical misdirect on the same scale as fortified flour is a bit of a stretch. I could talk a great deal more about the subject, but I doubt that anyone wants to follow me into a digression about the relationship between the Great Flood of 1927 and the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1928, as much as I'd like to drag Herbert Hoover's name through the mud some more in hopes that it will, somehow, miraculously, make the Hoover Institution go away.

For now, it suffices that I've brought out the (supposed) relationship between farm size and capitalisation. As this series continues into the war years, we are going to come up very directly on the intersection of war labour mobilisation, tractors and land use. Is it true that "automation" (tractors) made the jobs go away? 

No, it is not.


  1. George Orwell is a great example of the strange politics of food at the time. The famous "you want something "tasty"" (note the scarequotes) passage, which is usually quoted as a defence of ordinary people's right to choose what they eat versus nosey parkers' impositions, is actually quite squirrelly.

    Orwell flip-flops between arguing that you want something tasty, not lectures from the patronising middle class about wholemeal bread, and arguing that the workers are physically starving *because* radios and artificial silks are some sort of not-real economic growth, and therefore they need patronising. And what is the food he's talking about? Fish and chips!

    If you're living on fish and chips, you ain't going to starve. You might well get fat, but starvation is not going to be one of your problems. Neither is someone who's stuffing themselves with oily fish going to be short of vitamins.

    But then he's committed to the weird reactionary strand in his argument. Which is all the weirder, because the nostalgic era for him is pre-1914 and the British working class diet was much worse then. And what is it with him and aspirin, which he seems to think is an opiate?

    I kind of think the skewer in the kebab is probably sexism.

  2. Pre-1914, the social reform of choice was giving the British worker a garden allotment. So the conversation about food, work and wages has moved back to a very different framing. It's also a quite inconvenient one, since potatoes feature as a "bad" food. (And we get told to eat the skins. . . )