Eleanor Boyle’s Mobilize Food! Wartime Inspiration for Environmental Victory Today offers concrete ideas for how food systems can be transformed. (Julie Doro Photography)
I plan to make the Honourable Woolton Pie. Just for fun, not necessarily because I think it’ll taste wonderful, though it might. Named after Lord Woolton (Frederick Marquis), who was appointed minister of food in 1940 Britain, it represents several of the British government’s goals during the war years: it was “meatless, thrifty, filling, and made use of domestically produced in-season foods.” The recipe is in Eleanor Boyle’s latest book, Mobilize Food! Wartime Inspiration for Environmental Victory Today (FriesenPress, 2022). The book is the only reason I know who Woolton is. More importantly, the book offers many reasons to feel less naïve for mostly believing that humankind can save ourselves and the planet before we kill ourselves and the planet.
Mobilize Food! is an optimistic examination of Second World War rationing and other wartime policies in England and how the lessons from that period could help us counter the climate crisis by changing our food systems, to start. Lest one think that Boyle is a pie-eyed dreamer, she has solid credentials – a bachelor’s in psychology, a master’s in food policy and a doctorate in neuroscience. The Vancouverite also has been a journalist and she taught for many years. She wrote the book High Steaks: Why and How to Eat Less Meat (New Society, 2012).
Despite all of Boyle’s education and experience, she still believes that radical change is possible. This is heartening in and of itself. But it’s the 42-page bibliography that I found more assuring. The recommendations Boyle makes in Mobilize Food! are based on extensive research. And they consider what individuals, governments and businesses are already doing, as well as what they could be doing more of (which is a lot). She is not arguing for a socialist utopia, or a utopia of any sort, though she does imagine more engaged, civic-minded communities than I think currently exist anywhere in the world. That said, she gives an example of a city that apparently has ended hunger – Belo Horizonte, Brazil, “which in 1993 declared access to food as every citizen’s right. It then implemented food price subsidies, supply and market regulation, supports for urban agriculture, education on food preparation and nutrition, and job creation in the food sector.”
How does this relate to Second World War Britain? As did Britain during the 1940s, Belo Horizonte set up state-subsidized restaurants that are open to everyone (to avoid stigmatizing people on lower incomes), it feeds kids in the public education system every day, it partners with private grocery stores so that they can sell cheaper fruits and vegetables, and it supports family farms, among other actions “that help democratize food.”
Boyle provides copious data and examples of how the food industry, as it stands, is contributing to climate change “by contributing at least a quarter of human-caused GHGs [greenhouse gases].” It does this through its use of fossil fuels, the cultivation of monocultures (“vast, unnatural acreages of single-species crops”) and destroying ecosystems by removing or burning vegetation, among other activities. One of the eye-opening stats is: “Some analysts calculate the contribution of livestock to overall anthropogenic GHGs as at least 30% and as high as 51%.”
Boyle argues persuasively that how we produce and consume food can be transformed. The first half of Mobilize Food! runs through all that Britain did to make significant changes, “from national agricultural policy to the family dinner plate. They didn’t wait for dire food shortages or society-wide agreement of exactly how to proceed. Even before war was declared, government set up a high-powered food committee to craft plans for making food systems crisis-ready.” They used multiple strategies and strived for general engagement using PR campaigns and other tools. “The programs were simple but transformational,” writes Boyle, “based on shifts toward domestically produced, plant-rich and minimally processed foods. Together those programs adequately fed the population – and, in many ways, better than prewar, by providing broader and more equitable access to food and enhanced health [reducing diabetes and heart disease, for example].”
The wartime measures also show that people can change how they eat and act, she notes. But leadership is key – Lord Woolton was very charismatic, it seems, and, on the larger scale, Boyle writes, “Only governments have the mandate for the public good, the oversight for national strategy and the legislative levers. Only public officials can do the necessary system-wide planning, coordinate sectors, forge agreements across regions, and make the tough decisions.” Lastly, such massive change relies on everyone participating: “We’ll need to think systems-wide and involve every segment of society, every community, every food-related business and civic organization, and every one of us.”
Boyle admits this all “sounds like fantasy. But, as the story of World War II Britain shows, such a transformation has occurred.” Am I personally convinced we have what it takes to mobilize so drastically? The larger whole is still too much for me to contemplate, but I can eat even less meat and fewer processed foods, buy more from local growers, invest in businesses that improve the environment and/or social outcomes, support politicians who are working toward a healthier and more inclusive society. No doubt, there is much more that I could be doing, but it’s a start.
I’m glad that I read Mobilize Food! Full of images (including awesome wartime PR posters), data and stories from people who lived through the war effort, it is engaging on many levels. It reminded me that what seems impossible may not actually be so. And the importance of hope – combined with action – cannot be overstated.
For more information, visit eleanorboyle.com.