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Rationing for the climate crisis: can we learn from Wartime Britain?

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

An article written by Hannah Smith (find the original article here).

The UK imports just over half of its food, yet 17.7% of the food we buy gets thrown away (1). Climate change is already having an effect on our supply of food, with crop yields altering due to changing weather patterns. The way we import and consume food in the UK is not sustainable, and will have to radically change to meet future challenges.

World War II caused immense pressure on the nation’s food supply, and rationing was the answer. Could similar measures be used to fight the climate crisis?


On the 8th January 1940 the British government imposed restrictions on the amount of food citizens could buy. This started with bacon, butter and sugar but went on to include: meat, tea, margarine, jam, cheese, eggs, rice, dried fruit, tinned tomatoes, tinned peas, sweets, chocolate, biscuits, sausages.

In theory the system was relatively simple. Each individual received a ration book with a set amount of points to spend. Points equated to set weights or values of food which flexed with the ever changing availability of goods.

There were different types of books to cover the variation in needs for infants, children, expectant mothers, nursing mothers and adults in manual labour. Points could only be spent in a chosen shop, to help regulate supply and demand.

However, some items were never rationed — vegetables grown in the UK were not restricted. The attitude towards luxuries was very different. Icing sugar was made illegal, and brides had to settle for cardboard covers for their wedding cakes.


Rationing in the digital age

Imagine you open up your food supply app, which has just refreshed with the amount of points you’re allowed for the next two weeks.

Imagined view of rationing today. HS 2020.

You can see how much food this converts to, from a mixture of your favourite retailers. You spot that there has been a glut of British grown carrots, which are ‘off-points’ right now. This is accompanied by a feed of the most popular carrot-containing recipes on Pinterest right now. You calculate your staples and set to pick up your order from a locker on the way back from work. You swap the order for all your empty packaging which heads straight back to the manufacturer for reprocessing.

Points are calculated based on the carbon impact of each food item. Most of the country have chosen to remove animal products from their diet completely, but some still ‘save up’ for a local steak for special occasions.

Later on in the week you receive a notification that you’ve hit 80% of your points for that week, if you ever hit 100% your electronic wallet would not let you buy any food on points. It’s a good enough incentive not to hit the cap, but you could get by with the vegetables you’ve been growing on your balcony.

Heading out for food used to stretch your monthly budget to the max, but local restaurants now work on a subsidised model. Menu items marked with a ‘C’ indicate dishes with ingredients with a low carbon impact. What’s even better is that they don’t require any points. They’ve successfully made restaurants accessible for many lower-income families.


Beyond rationing points, there are many striking similarities between today’s problems and those in the 1940’s.

Weekly ration for two. Source: Independent


Much like zero waste shops of today, corner shops in the 40s would weigh out items in bulk and customers were encouraged to use their own containers and baskets.

Paper bags became in short supply, and people would use whatever they had to carry their goods home. A little like those first weeks after the 5p bag charge.

Branded goods came in much simpler packaging than today, mainly in tins and card boxes.

Manufacturers encouraged a closed loop system where customers brought their empties back to the shop so that they could collect the materials for re-use.

Dig for victory

In 1939 only 40% of Britain’s vegetables were grown on home soil, this rapidly changed to 70% in 1943.

Farmers were given grants to encourage crops to feed the nation, but they were strictly controlled by the ministry of agriculture. They were pushed to produce more and more, often ploughing through the night.

In one of the most memorable wartime campaigns, the government asked people to ‘Dig for Victory’. Everyone was asked to consider every scrap of available land as a precious resource. Rural and urban parks, gardens and scraps of land were turned over for planting vegetables.

Restaurant food

Restaurants weren’t rationed but supplies were controlled to the amount of customers, later on they tightened to restrict to one main meal per person.

For the majority of Britons in wartime, eating out was a luxury reserved for the upper classes. However, ‘British restaurants’ were opened to allow people to eat hot food at a low controlled, low price.

For the lower classes eating in communal space was a strange concept. But it was more resource efficient to cook and heat in larger quantities and offered a social space that was particularly welcome in cold winters.

Diners were gently pushed to choosing dishes made with ingredients that were not in short supply. Such menu items marked with a ‘V’ for Victory.

Wartime propaganda. Source: imgur

How did the government publicise it?

Churchill’s government had to strike a fine balance between necessary restriction and a drop in morale.

Rationing was never described as missing out or going hungry — it was about allowing everyone to have a fair share. In a heavily class divided society, there was a feeling that the rich would never suffer. Rationing bought everyone from the Queen to an East End housewife to the same level.

Adverts and propaganda showed your neighbour using less than you, avoiding a paternalistic enforcement by working on people’s natural peer competitiveness.

The effect

Despite the hardship, the health of the nation improved. People ate more fibre (from wholemeal bread rather than white), less sugar, less meat/fat and more vegetables.

Government campaigns focused on getting a balanced diet within the restrictions and keeping healthy so that everyone could do their bit for the war effort.

The poorest families are thought to have seen the most positive effects. Stricter controls on the capping of food prices, free school meals and daily milk, cod-liver oil and orange juice saw underprivileged children growing taller and heavier.

Zero waste, then and now. Left: tripadvisor Right: Goodnet

What if it happened now?

It’s undeniable that similarities exist between then and now. The recent shift to a reduction in meat consumption, packaging and waste. The shift towards localism and reduction of reliance on imported goods. Let alone the need to radically reduce the levels of obesity and poor diets. However, these shifts have come from personal choice, enabled by education, privilege and access to alternatives.

But, would we ever be truly happy to give up our freedom of choice, especially if it became a mandate? ‘The war effort’ was a cause the whole nation got behind, would we ever see that for the climate crisis?

Personal choice

Rationing could start as a personal choice, a carbon ‘diet’ aimed at those lucky enough to have money, time and effort to change their food consumption habits. You could imagine this working particularly well in the London millenial middle class, with influencers advertising how to best spend your points whilst still having an instagrammable life. This ‘soft’ approach could normalise carbon awareness without requiring infrastructure changes, or indeed changing the lives of that many.


It’s never been a better time to talk about reactionary rationing. Take the shortage of toilet paper and hand sanitiser during the Covid-19 pandemic. Supermarkets have been pushed to enforce limits on the number of items bought by each shopper. Imagine this is the same for bananas, but instead of panic buying it’s a natural disaster that severely depletes the UK’s imports. At any one time, several items could be restricted. It’s a pattern we’ve all become accustomed to in the past few weeks, and one that relies on the individual not jumping the system by travelling to several supermarkets in one day. Again this doesn’t massively alter day-to-day life, but does have a wider reach.


Each and every food item has a complex impact on the environment, from land, water and pesticides, to shipping, methane and waste. But if a universal scale could be agreed upon, then food with a particularly high impact could be rationed. For example your red meat, imported avocado and out of season strawberries would become a real luxury that could only be consumed in much smaller quantities than we’re used too.

Full mandate

And finally, the most extreme and impactful would be a full government control of how many points we can spend on food. Above I talked about how technology could enable a clearer tracking of purchases. You’d certainly need cooperation between retailers to share their data, so I could not simply buy triple my points in three seperate supermarkets. The current calculation of a healthy balanced diet is based on the ‘Eatwell plate’ which gives an indication of the proportion of food types we should eat to remain healthy. There’s certainly no dried eggs and spam in sight and it’s arguable that a diet based on this would be much healthier than many people’s current diets. However, you would most certainly face extreme backlash as people lose their freedom of choice. Could this be an instance, like the drink driving law and smoking ban, where it’s needed? A few weeks ago, we would have never imagined being in an enforced lockdown, only allowed out of our houses once a day. Now is the time to rethink the status quo, and learn from a time of much greater hardship.

Queuing: Coronavirus and rationing Left: BBC Right: Enflieldatwar


(Note: There’s no denying that rationing was tough for most families. As someone who has luckily never lived through such a time I’m keeping the words of my great grandmother in mind: ‘The good old days were not the good old days’. But I hope this is a provoking piece that focuses on what we can learn from those who lived through the challenge.)


Related links and sources

Food in a warming world, WWF


Thank you Hannah for sharing this piece with us, follow her over here for future articles for PWC and here if you'd like to connect with her on LinkedIn.

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