Feeding a Starving World

By Donald Wilhelm

[The Independent; February 8, 1919]

If you stood in the middle of Germany today and surveyed all of Europe, you would see that virtually all its population of four hundred million human beings is short of food. Not all, but many, are starving. Wherever—except in France—the hand of Germany has reached out over its borders, there starvation is the threat—starvation and disorder. And England, even, is suffering discomfort, more than France! And the French, British and Italians still have one hundred and twenty million persons on rations, a condition that has less disastrous results in war than in peace, when victory is over the horizon. Then, too, there are forty millions of people in the neutral nations. And, in addition, a hundred millions in the enemy nations. In fact, of all the areas of Europe there are only three considerable ones which need not import a great deal of food before the next harvest—southern Russia, Hungary and Denmark.

In Poland, Finland, Serbia, Armenia and central and northern Russia people are actually dying of starvation—which is an easier thing than might be imagined, for those who, thru four long years have suffered undernutrition. But starvation is, in its physical and political consequences, a relative matter. That is, whereas thousands in starvation areas die from the sheer need of food, many thousands more die from attendant ills which make bitter progression when all physical resistance is down, when the tissues and bones of children, even, seem like dead little birches in a wind, to give way. And by the same rule, so the history of Europe is demonstrating, starvation may directly claim five or fifty thousand, and attendant ills five times as many. The impress of the fifty who die last, perhaps, may be greater far, in its enduring quality, than the shallow impress of all the thousands of graves that were dug before. In Belgium and northern France, for instance, Mr. Hoover has said ten millions of persons would have died from starvation but for the pitiable bread-line help afforded. We know what the consequences of the violation of the rights of the Belgians have been; we can imagine what, if ten millions had died, they would have been.

Now it is east of the Rhine that trouble is brewing, and brewing by no means quickest in Germany.

"Our first and deepest concern," adds Mr. Hoover, "must be for the little Allies, who were under the German yoke—the Belgians, Serbians, Rumanians, Greeks, Czechs, Jugo-Slavs," and the odds and ends of those new, embryonic republics fringing what was Russia, which, with the nationalities mentioned by Mr. Hoover, have about seventy-five millions of hungry or starving persons. "If we do not feed these nationalities Heaven only knows what the consequences will be," said one of Mr. Hoover's associates.

"Our next concern," Mr. Hoover went on, "must be to relax blockade measures to the end that the neutral states of Europe which are now on short rations shall be able to take care of their people and prevent the growth of anarchy. This group constitutes about forty millions. Another problem lies in the fifty million people of northern Russia, a large part of whom are inaccessible owing to the breakdown of transportation, and thru sheer anarchy. Millions of these are beyond all help this winter. At this moment Germany has not alone sucked the food and animals from those masses she has dominated and left starving, but she has left behind her a total wreckage of social institutions, and these people are now confronted with engulfment in absolute anarchy."

The President has insisted on substantially the same points in his appeal to Congress. "Food relief," he said, "is now the key to the whole European situation and to the solution of peace." The $100,000,000—about a fourth of the total required in Europe—which Congress promptly voted, "will not be spent for Germany itself, because Germany can buy its food, but it will be spent for financing the movement of food to our real friends in Poland and to the people of the liberated units of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and to our associates in the Balkans."

One hundred million dollars—twenty-five cents for each of four hundred million hungry persons—is nothing—nothing for America with its full hands and mouths, while over there men and women and children are starving; less than nothing when it is remembered that about the only way in which we are likely to get our loans back from some of our debtor nations is by helping them to their feet now, when, more than, ever they need help; less than nothing when we remember that the Government guaranteed the farmers more than $2 a bushel for their wheat crops until May 31, 1920, and the only way in the world that Congress can hope to get its money back is to make a market for that wheat, for it is clear now that the natural laws of international demand and supply will not make sufficient market for it. It is the stuff that tragedy is made of, in fact, this spectacle of one side of the world enjoying a plenty while over there, almost within the handclasp of modern transportation ingenuities, people by the thousand are starving.

War is bad enough, of course. When war is over such conditions seem vastly more deplorable, especially when we remember, as Frederic Wolcott of the Food Administration, who has just left for Poland to direct the work of relief there, says, "the loss from starvation includes among its victims a large percentage of children and women of the next generation and the mothers of a nation. In consequence of the lowered vitality of all the working classes, the decreased resistance to disease and the decline of the birth rate, the losses suffered in this war by the nations short of food is actually far greater than the losses of those called into battle."

"I went to Poland, which is typical of the worst," explained one of Mr. Hoover's associates. "The country had been twice devastated. First the Russian Army swept thru it, and then the Germans. Along the roadside from Warsaw to Pinsk, near half a million people had died of hunger and cold. The way was strewn with their bones picked clean by the crows. With their usual thrift, the Germans were collecting the larger bones to be milled into fertilizer, but finger and toe bones lay on the ground with the mud covered and rain soaked clothing. Wicker baskets were scattered along the way—the basket in which the baby swings from the rafter in every peasant home. Every mile there were scores of them. I started to count. That road was more than 200 miles. I gave it up, there were so many."

Four hundred thousand people died in Poland, following the German invasion, Dr. Wolcott avers. Altogether a fourth of Poland's millions have died, cables Mr. Hoover. In Serbia, other experts say, a million people out of three millions have perished in the last four years—and Mr. Hoover estimates at least a fourth have died. And now other nations are in the procession.

But what strikes hardest in all this situation is that the world has food enough for all. Then why are people starving? Because transportation facilities, including ships, 40 per cent of all, were destroyed, and some regions, as a result, cannot be reached; because other regions have not the money, even Italy has not sufficient, and must have credit; because other regions are as No Man's Lands in which thousands of families are starving, beyond which, along yonder bulwarks, the Red Flag flies, forbidding relief, "which relief," said one of the associates of Mr. Hoover, "we have to take in baskets, as it were, to make sure that the people get it who should. Then we must stand by to watch them eat it, to make sure that they are permitted to eat it."

No one knows precisely how much food is needed in the world. All during the war there has been only one European nation, England, which has kept its statistical order and acumen in regard to food. All the others have been more or less victims of circumstances, with the result that even when France was called upon for, estimates, those estimates usually were found hurried and inexact. And if such disorder has been the rule in nations as staunch as France and Italy, the condition in some of the other nations of Europe can be guessed—-in the Balkan countries, for instance, in Poland, in other areas large and small which were nations and now are not, or were not and now are.

The Food Administration states that there is food enough for all if it can be allocated, and some of the authoritative agencies of the Agricultural Department helped the writer to draw the following conclusions: That, getting up in the morning, the world discovers promptly, perhaps, that there is an ample supply of coffee in the world, thanks to the fact that the Central Powers, which were among the world's 'greatest coffee users, have been cut off from the supply in Brazil and the other coffee centers, and coffee hence has accumulated. Bread, likewise, exists and will continue to exist, in plenty; that is, our wheat crop promises to approximate, in 1919, something like a billion bushels, and the accumulated supply in the Argentine and in Australia is tremendous. The Argentine is figuring on an exportable surplus of 185,000,000 (which is a trade opinion, by the way) and some of it is already in transit, and the Australian Wheat Pool estimates that, when the crop now being gathered is in, Australia will have an exportable surplus of about 210,000,000 bushels. And India, with about 50,000,000 exportable surplus, and Canada, with about 100,000,000 exportable surplus, and the Ukraine, are also in the running. Sugar exists in sufficient quantity—tho half the sugar beet industry of Europe has been out of commission the rest of the world has tremendously increased its production. And likewise rice: British India had a bumper crop, and tho the acreage this year is about 11 per cent less, still another goodly crop is in order, and the Japanese (this, again, is not an official figure, but a trade estimate) put their hulled rice at 286,000,000 bushels, an increase of 9,000,000 over last year, so that about an average world crop is promised. Then people have learned to eat rye, with the result that we in the United States have a rye crop on hand which is just about double that of the average of the years 1912-1916. And estimates indicate that there is about a 9.5 per cent increase in the total barley crop of the Northern Hemisphere over last year, and 12% per cent over the average for the years 1912-1916; and that the oats crop is 1.8 per cent greater, in the Northern Hemisphere, than last year and 17.3 per cent greater than the average for the years 1912-1916. Corn, for the Northern Hemisphere, is 13 per cent less than last year's crop, but about equal to an average crop.

Now, if we supplement our lunch with salad, made from garden products which exist rather generally in quantity, we shall find an ample supply of cottonseed oil. Out of the 1917 crop of cotton they made 1,188,000,000 pounds, with olive oil on the way. And if we supplement our lunch with dinner, which is something inconceivable, to millions of people in Europe these days, we find that the authorities are fairly well agreed on the world meat situation; that is, Europe will need, in the coming year, about 25,000,000,000 pounds, and so far as surveys now indicate Europe can supply about 7% billions of pounds, and the rest of the world can supply Europe about an equal amount, 4½ billions, of pounds of which are due from America. But this estimate may be low; at any rate the reports coming back from Europe from the Allied investigators indicate that meats, fats—notably butter—and milk are so scarce that in all the famine regions they are sorely missed, especially by children, who need fats in large quantity normally, and need them especially after four years of fasting.

The countries along the western fringe of Europe—Norway, Sweden, England, France, Denmark, Belgium and Holland—can get by until the new harvests with our help. Among the countries in the west of Europe the worst off, of course, is Belgium.

Belgium was an intense little country of only about 11,000 square miles—about as large as the State of New Jersey, one-fourth as large as the State of Pennsylvania. It had more miles of canals and railroads for its size than any other similar area in the world, with a population of 654 to the square mile—nearly twice that of Great Britain and twice that of Germany, three times that of France and twenty-three times that of the United States; with exports twice as great as those of Great Britain, three times those of Germany or France, and imports twice those of Great Britain, three times of Germany, seven times those of the United States. It was, it may be seen, a land in which everything, industrial, agricultural and otherwise, was closely interrelated and interdependent. There for four years the people have lived on the bread and soup of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, if indeed they were that fortunate. Many of them have been in slavery behind the German lines and are now being returned in hundreds of thousands, depleted in physical strength to an extent that Americans, apparently, hardly can understand. But Belgium is happily off when it is compared with some of the small, new nations around the other fringes of the land that perpetrated all the woe.

The whole black problem of starvation in Europe is illustrated, not by Italy with its 35,000,000 in population and 110,000 square miles of territory, which is in intermediate position and condition, but rather by the poor and overcrowded door-mat for the mighty—Poland.

The damage of Poland is illustrative. The transportation facilities of Poland are ruined. The Russians invaded this country and withdrew or destroyed all the rolling stock of the country when they were driven out. Then the Germans changed the gage of all the lines from the Russian to the German standard, and, in turn, when they retreated, they took with them or destroyed all the rolling stock. Nevertheless the only way to help the country is to get the food into Danzig by such rolling stock that may yet be found in Poland and commandeered. The most pressing problem exists in and, around the two cities of Warsaw and Lodz.

Poland is illustrative of much of the vast problem of feeding Europe. It was a country about twice as large as the State of New York, with a population of twenty million people—a flat, alluvial plain, well watered, with large and, formerly, wonderful cities of happy and contented people.

Frederic P. Wolcott, of the Food Administration, who is in charge of the relief in Poland, said:

Take from that country practically all the live stock, cattle, horses, pigs, geese, all sources of meat and dairy products, and then requisition (the German word for steal) all the cereals and vegetables for an army of two and a half million men, returning to the natives only what is left after feeding the army and the constabulary, make it a crime by proclamation for any Pole to feed any other Pole who has refused to go into Germany and work—depopulation by starvation—keep all this up for four and a half years, and what is left?

In spite of all this, Poland has hung on struggling for liberty, and now that we have access to her she is threatened by another force more terrible than the first, Bolshevik revolution, differing little from the Prussian system. Bolshevism feeds on starvation and famine. It is working upon a population there which has lost nearly all of its young--children, while those remaining are so undernourished that their bones are soft and break from the slightest strain.

No relief has reached these famine stricken people for four and a half years except some condensed milk sent in by the Rockefeller Foundation for a few months just previous to our entering the war, to keep alive a few thousand children in the industrial centers of Warsaw and Lodz. Now Mr. Hoover is cabling for relief and the funds which have been ready and waiting to relieve are at last going into Poland in the form of food to save the relatives of American Poles and American Jews.

The story of Poland's twenty millions, waiting, struggling, pleading for help from the outside world for four and a half years of destitution and finally of famine can never fully be told. No human catastrophe in the world's history compares with it.

But Poland's story is different only in kind from that of the vast industrial section of Russia lying about Moscow, Petrograd and Kiev, where forty millions of human beings are between the "devil and the deep sea's transportation," to quote a Russian. In that region, which is down black on Mr. Hoover's starvation map, things political are running rough. Despair of helping this region at all, is, indeed, the order of the day.

The world knows more about Serbia's dread conditions. A fourth of her four millions are dead, the rest are in a most deplorable condition. Bread, for those who can buy it, ranged between twenty-five and forty cents a pound, when the last cables from Mr. Hoover's organization arrived. But such bread is not for the poor, who, especially in the cities, are suffering deplorably, and to such an extent that no nation in the world is extensive enough and rich enough to lend relief except America, and from America already the first cargoes have arrived at Trieste and Cattaro and other points on the Adriatic Sea, intended for Serbia and the territory recently amalgamated with Serbia in Bosnia and Montenegro, where, Mr. Hoover cables, the distress is very acute, and to which the only connection is by railroad from the Adriatic, since the Bulgars destroyed the railroad from Salonica.

"Armenia," Mr. Hoover cables, "is starving."

The American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief estimates that there are 350,000 Armenian refugees, of whom only 180,000 are accessible, and nearly four million refugees in all of Asia Minor, in the Caucasus, in Syria and Mesopotamia, of whom only 935,000 are accessible, and of whom half of these accessible destitute are children.

Jugo-Slavia, like virtually all of eastern Europe, is short of meats, fats, milk—"so short in many regions." Mr. Hoover cabled, "that the health of the people is very much, impaired, mortality among children is appalling, and there is a constant menace thru the threatened spread of Bolshevism, especially in the cities." And "Czechoslovakia also," Mr. Hoover reports, "is suffering much from lack of fats and milk."

In the north of Europe, hard by that great black puzzle called Northern Russia, where, all along the line, one hears it calmly stated, millions of people will starve this winter, out of reach of help, Finland has exhausted all the food in the cities, tho the peasants still have bread.

Rumania's last harvest was 60 per cent a failure. The bread supply for the people is estimated to last another thirty days. And in Bulgaria, likewise, the harvest was a failure and there is food for only one or two months.

Little is known about the conditions in the enemy countries, and few believe the reports emanating therefrom. It is reported by Mr. Hoover's organization abroad, however, that in Vienna, where the people are living as in the lull before another storm, listless, broken, "except for supplies furnished by the Italians and Swiss, the present bread ration of six ounces per diem would disappear. There is much illness from shortage of fats, the ration being one and one-half ounces"—about as much as a waiter hands one, to begin with, in an American restaurant—and there are no coffee, sugar or eggs and practically no meat."

All this may give something of the picture. It is a grim picture but a temporary one. Europe will not need relief of the kind now required when the next harvests are ready. The stress then will be over, tho not for generations can Europe recover from the period it is now going thru. In another year there will be no four million British troops quitting their "watch on the Rhine," and no troopships moving from Mesopotamia to Bombay, from Egypt and the Balkans to Australia and Singapore, from France to Canada and the United States. But meanwhile, in the coming months, an amount of food almost as great as the huge amount which has been poured into Belgium during the last four and one-half years, must now be got to Europe. It will cost not so much as it cost to feed Belgium, if we are able to judge by the quick but necessarily rather casual estimates now being cabled to America. This is the last lap in the dire race against world starvation. If the world wins now, doubtless Mr. Hoover will find its esteem even "worse" than that of Belgium, which, he describes as "embarrassing."

Washington, D.C.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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