The Grow More Food campaign, 1939-1945 By Arlene Munroe
Stabroek News
August 29, 2002

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During the Second World War, "Grow More Food" campaigns were launched in several British Caribbean colonies. In Barbados, food crop production increased from 10,000 tons per annum to 50,000. In Jamaica, the value of food crops was twice that of exports during the war. Other Caribbean colonies also increased their levels of food production and, as a result, there were surpluses in some colonies.

In British Guiana, the success of the campaign was attributed to Sir Gordon Lethem, who was described as the 'principal architect' of the Guiana "Grow More Food" campaign. Cheddi Jagan, future leader of the People's Progressive Party, who returned from studying in the United States in 1943 while the campaign was in progress, subsequently hailed Lethem as a "far-sighted Colonial Governor ... who preached the need for diversification ..." The Grow More Food campaign was a contributory factor to the expansion of ground provision and rice cultivation.

By 1941, British Guiana, which had traditionally produced sugar for the export market was also exporting rice and other crops. Guiana also produced Liberian coffee, citrus and other fruits, cacao, ground provisions and vegetables, and relatively small quantities of pulses. During the campaign, efforts were made to increase production of foods which would be consumed locally.

While Lethem has been credited with the success of the food campaign, it is important to note that in reality, the campaign began in 1939, some two years prior to his appointment as Governor of British Guiana in 1941. What were the factors responsible for the Grow More Food campaign? It would appear that the primary cause was the decision of the Colonial Office to adopt the policy of promoting increased food production in the colonies and of creating a peasantry engaged in food production, independent of the sugar estates. The Colonial Office came to this decision after a tour of the colonies by its Labour Advisor, Major Orde Browne, 1938.

After Major Orde Browne toured the Caribbean in 1938, he produced a report which depicted a dismal British Caribbean, so gloomy that the British government was spurred to take immediate steps to ameliorate some of the more obvious signs of working class impoverishment. Browne condemned the practice of food importation by Caribbean colonies and the concomitant neglect of local food production which resulted in periodic inflationary tendencies, malnutrition and poor health.

Orde Browne recommended that local food production by peasant farmers be encouraged to solve the problem of unbalanced diet and to create employment for the unskilled and partially employed Caribbean estate labourers who were only employed for six months of the year when work was available on sugar estates. During the rest of the year they were unemployed. Noting the disadvantages of this system, Browne therefore recommended the creation of a peasant-producing class.

As a consequence, Whitehall adopted a new policy which was outlined by the Secretary of State for the colonies, Malcolm McDonald, in 1939. The new policy of increased food production in the British colonies was reported in the local press under the headline, "Colonies are told: Grow your own Food." It is important to note that Malcolm Macdonald actually blamed the low standard of living on undue preference for export crops. He explained that, when the prices of export crops fell, the labourer was 'thrown out of work' or his wages declined leaving him with little cash for imported foods and the necessities of life.

Apart from colonial policy, there were other factors which facilitated the launching of the Grow More Food campaign. For example, the outbreak of war in September 1939 provided ideal conditions in which the experiment could be carried out. In a broadcast to the colonies aired on Wednesday 11th October 1939, Malcolm MacDonald advised colonial governments to increase the production of foodstuffs for domestic consumption so that the populations would be independent of imported food supplies. Realising that some foods which could not be produced in the colonies would still be imported, the Secretary of State instructed that such foods be imported from the nearby British colonies or Britain in order to save foreign exchange currency. He also approved of those price control measures already taken and encouraged new ones as well.

The Grow More Food campaign had three phases. The first was planned by the colonial administration in the seat of power when the Second World War started and lasted from 1939 to 1941. The second phase was planned by Governor Lethem's administration when he was appointed Governor in November 1941 and ended in 1945. This second phase was more successful than the first as Lethem built upon the foundation laid by his predecessor, Sir Wilfred Jackson, and intensified the campaign. In the third and final phase, 1945-1947, the food campaign declined.

During the first phase of the campaign, a Food Production Committee was appointed on 7th September 1939 with the Director of Agriculture as its Chairman. Its duty was to supervise food supplies in the colony, encourage greater food production by private persons through Allotment Schemes, and direct marketing of foods under the aegis of Government. The Allotment Schemes were plots of land reserved for cultivation of food crops by private citizens or workers to provide sufficient food for their families. Rice estate proprietors and mill-owners were requested to expand rice production so that British Guiana could provide rice for herself and the rest of the British Caribbean.

On November 1, 1940, a government produce depot was established next to the Transport and Harbours Stelling in Stabroek. One was also established in New Amsterdam in 1942. The supervisor of the depot met with farmers in the Demerara River, Canals Polder, Pomeroon and North-West Districts. Their response to the prices offered by the government on 1 November 1940 when they delivered eddoes, cassavas, plantains and bananas was tremendous.

The second phase of the campaign began when Lethem arrived in November 1941 and expanded the campaign in 1942 in response to the demands of the Colonial Office. The Secretary of State for the Colonies had instructed Governors in the British Caribbean to intensify the food production drive because of "increasing difficulties created by the war and the growing shortage of shipping..."

Consequently, Lethem established a Legislative Council Food Production Committee of which he appointed himself chairman in May 1942. In addition, he caused a District Food Committee to be set up in every administrative area of British Guiana with the District Administrative Officer as Chairman. The Deputy Director of Agriculture acted as Communications Officer between the Legislative Council Food Production Committee and the eight District Committees. These measures caused "speedier action on efforts and schemes requiring financial assistance" because Legislative Council members who had to approve financial loans had become part of the Food Production Committee. The Committee guaranteed fixed prices for farmers for the three years, 1942-1945, and offered to purchase surplus crops in the event of a glut on the market. Peasant farmers responded to these incentives with much enthusiasm.

A Grow More Food Day was observed on Sunday, 27 September 1942. On that day, Lethem made a radio broadcast which was recorded at a function held at the United States' Service Club, Kingston. In his appeal to Guianese to support the Grow More Food campaign, Lethem declared that the production drive was not just a war stunt but also a vision of a way of life.

The Grow More food campaign had a positive impact on the colony. It resulted in increased food production, crop diversification and an all round expansion in the rice industry and rice exports to the Caribbean. It was a boost to peasant farming growth and led to an improvement in Marketing of agricultural products. It reinforced local beliefs that British Guiana had the potential to be self-sufficient in food.

Increased food production was the primary effect of the campaign. There were increases in the production of ground provision, pulses and rice. Ground provision production, increased from 1,750,000 lbs to 10,348,266 lbs in 1945. The acreage under ground provisions moved from 14,780 in 1939 to approximately 23,000 acres in 1944. Rice Production increased from 40,388 tons in 1939 to 58,942 in 1944 and to 59,000 in 1950

Another consequence of the food campaign was a short-term crop diversification on the sugar estates. This was initiated in accordance with instructions received from the Colonial Office which was concerned that the disruption of shipping due to war activities in 1942 would affect food supplies to the colonies.

The estates were requested to produce peas and beans as peasant farmers were already producing ground provisions. The estates were asked to allot 4,000 acres for production of Blackeye, pigeon peas and beans. They would also rear 6,000 hogs each year and, with the aid of the government, 2,000 steers. Their pulse production was 600,000 lbs in 1943, 580,000 lbs in 1944 and the majority of the 367,893 lbs produced in 1945. After 1945, the sugar estates stopped cultivating pulses "on account of the paramount necessity for maximum production of sugar."

Peasant farming on the coastlands and at Bartica received a boost as a consequence of the Grow More Food campaign. Rice farmers and ground provision farmers benefited from loans, seed and tool distribution, drainage and irrigation schemes, high guaranteed prices, government purchase of surplus crops, technical advice from the nine District Food Committees and marketing and export of their crops.

Increased production of pigs was another consequence of the food campaign. The sugar estates and peasant farmers were responsible for this. In 1943, the number of pigs killed in Georgetown was 9,321. This increased to 11,910 in 1944. Between 1943 and 1945 production increased and figures rose from 25,180 in 1942 to 41,756 in 1943 to 43,300 in 1945.

Resumption of the export of surplus crops was another consequence of the food campaign. In 1944, after two years of no exportation, 90,000 bunches of plantain were exported to Trinidad for the period September to December 1944. In 1945, 900,461 lbs were exported, 774,961 lbs to Trinidad and 125,500 lbs to Barbados. Figures were greater than those of an earlier decade, 1929 to 1939.

More importantly, the Grow More Food campaign reinforced the people's belief that they could be self-sufficient in food. In 1942, Sir Gordon Lethem stated while addressing the Legislative Council that a policy was needed where food production was viewed "as a primary object, at least equal in importance to production of cash export crops.." Lethem achieved his goal.

In conclusion, the Second World War facilitated the implementation of the Grow More Food campaign. But the underlying cause of the campaign was the food production policy for the colonies which the Colonial Office devised in response to the report of its Labour Adviser, Major Orde Browne. The campaign in British Guiana was largely successful due to the role played by Sir Gordon Lethem in intensifying the campaign on his arrival in British Guiana.