Professor John Raeburns’ death a few weeks ago removes a fascinating figure in the scope of agricultural policies during WW2 and in postwar developments...
Professor John Raeburns’ death a few weeks ago removes a fascinating figure in the scope of agricultural policies during WW2 and in postwar developments, notably the 1947 Agricultural Act, which intensified government support for farmers and sought to avoid repetition of the post-WW1 experience when many in the industry had felt betrayed. His obituary in the Times (28 July 2006) describes him as the “agricultural economist who ran the wartime Dig for Victory campaign and did much to shape postwar farming policy”. These were green initiatives advertised with songs and posters featuring Dr Carrot and Potato Pete (and with the example of the acrobatic human digger in the picture).
They were successful and his policies overcame the conflicting demands of the Ministry of Food, “which was concerned primarily with nutrition, and the Ministry of Agriculture, which tended to ask what farmers were able to produce”. With the collaboration of Lord Woolton, Minister of Food from 1940-1043 and the Radio Doctor, Professor Raeburn anticipated savings in what would be now regarded as food miles but were then appallingly measured also in the lives of merchant seamen, naval mariners, and ships.
Vision and Mission
The gardening magician could be matched with the secrecy and derringdo that resulted from a glut of carrots. The Government of the time “let it be known” that carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, which was believed to improve night vision, “was largely responsible for the RAF’s increasing success in shooting down enemy bombers” and locating U-boats. “People eagerly tucked in to carrots, believing this would help them to see more clearly in the blackout. The ruse not only reduced the surplus vegetables but also helped to mask the chief reason for the RAF’s success – the increasing power of radar and the secret introduction of an airborne version of the system.” (RAF pilots were urged to believe that carrots helped with their prospects with the girls and, if they were captured, to spin that line, having done all they could to destroy the magic eye and its works prior to crashing).
Professor Raeburn’s story gives glimpses of a green missionary’s life in those days. He escaped from Nanking University at the start of the second Sine-Japanese War in 1937 and subsequently put in spells of academic, UN, or government research in Oxford, Wales, Uganda, Tanganyika, Nyasaland, Nigeria, Cornell (USA), London, Aberdeen, and Wuhan (China). He was a consultant to the World Bank from 1979 to 1988.
The Vegetarian Nutrition Research Centre arose in this postwar milieu, becoming the ancestor of VEGA. Professor Raeburn was “an enthusiastic gardener and followed the principles of Dig for Victory at home, feeding the family from the vegetable and fruit gardens he cultivated on his various postings. The spur for this was a mixture of his lifelong belief in healthy eating and a firm frugality; he was a frequent letter-writer and envelopes would be reused several times”.
He was a Food Standards Agency well before its time. He died at the age of 93.