By Richard I Needham
Originally published in the Jan. 24, 1951 Calgary Herald
It’s beginning to look as though the British will have to become vegetarians. Their meat ration is now at an all-time low — lower than it was during the German submarine blockade of World War Two — and it’s likely to go still further.
The ration is 10d. worth per head per week plus 2d. worth of corned beef. In all about 15 cents. The total weight would come to roughly a quarter of a pound, about as much as the average Canadian eats at one meal. It is usually beef or mutton, and poor quality at that: never pork or veal.
The reason why the ration is so small and likely to become smaller is that Britain cannot reach any agreement with Argentina, which ordinarily supplies 20 per cent of her meat. Owing to a dispute over prices, Argentina beef shipments to Britain were suspended on June 30, 1950, and haven’t been resumed since.
From time to time, the two governments meet for discussions, but always the discussions break down. Meanwhile 70,000 tons of beef are lying in Argentina’s great refrigerators, and another 40,000 tons are available for slaughter. Britain could have the whole lot — if only a deal could be made.
Reading the British newspapers — and dispatches from Britain to the Canadian and American newspapers — we notice a disposition to place all the blame for the breakdown on Argentina. According to the London bureau of The New York Times, “The British have said they would rather go without meat than be held up for ransom,” and Betty Burton, the able correspondent of the Windsor Star reports:
“We believe the Argentine is trying to make capital out of our shortage by charging too much for their meat… it can force us to pay its price for meat simply by holding out till we’re sick of fish. I don’t think we work that way. That’s the sort of thing that makes us angry and stubborn… At the moment, President Peron just isn’t one of our favourite heroes.”
What a dreadful man that President Peron must be! We guess if he went to London right now, they would stick his head on a pikestaff. But just a moment — what price is Argentina asking for her beef? Is it a fair price, by world standards, or is it an exorbitant one? Few, if any, of the people who write about the Anglo-Argentine meat dispute have taken the trouble to look into that question.
First, let us note that Argentina produces good beef: very good beef indeed. Secondly, let us note that she sold it to Britain in pre-war days for 10 to 12 cents a pound. Thirdly, let us note that the price she is asking now — the price the British Ministry of Food refuses to pay — is $390 U.S. a ton. That is a long ton, 2240 pounds, so when we break it down, we find that Argentina is asking 17 cents a pound: less than double the pre-war price.
Isn’t that reasonable? Practically all the food on world markets has doubled in price. Would Canada be either able or willing to sell beef to Britain at 17 cents a pound? The beef delivered to butcher shops here in Calgary runs around 50 cents a pound. So perhaps President Peron is not quite such a wicked man as the British are making him out to be. Perhaps he is simply trying to get a fair price — by Canadian standards, a rather low one — for his packers and ranchers.
We think it is time to say that the food-exporting peoples of this world — the Canadians and the Danes and the Dutch and the Argentines and the Australians and the New Zealanders — are fed up with the pinchpenny tactics of the British Ministry of Food; and by the way in which, when those tactics fail, they are made out to be Scrooges and Shylocks and Simon Legrees, callously holding back food from the tables of the British people.
We all know that Britain is one of the world’s great food importers, and we are all anxious to sell to her. But there is no reason on earth why we should sell food to her at a loss, any more than she should sell bicycles and automobiles to us at a loss. We have the right to demand a fair price; and the only way to ascertain a fair price is by free bargaining all along the line that leads from the producers at one end and the consumers at the other. In short, no more state trading.
A man who knows food markets inside out has this to say: “When the (British) government gives up bulk purchase of meat, the overseas farmer will begin to improve his flock and herds; the export buyer will begin to go after the farmer and buy his best animals; the freezing works will begin to treat the stock bought by the export buyers; the ships will begin to load the meat treated by the freezing works; the importers will begin to offer a choice of meat to the traders; the butcher will begin to sell to the public what the public wants; and the public will begin once again to enjoy the meat that it can pick and choose for itself.”
That statement appeared in the Manchester Guardian just before Christmas. The man who made it is Sir Henry Turner, former Controller of Meat and Livestock to the British Ministry of Food; and he is perfectly right. Only free, fair trading can give the British people the meat they want: their trading methods today are neither free nor fair, and that is why they are going without.