Boston — When Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey -- in his own inimitable way -- opened hearings on world hunger in 1974, he suggested taking another look at the achievements of the "first secretary of agriculture," the Biblical Joseph.
A world with no permanent food reserve, Senator Humphrey said, needed to take seriously the "first secreta tary's" plan to store up grain during abundant years for "the seven lean years" ahead.
Now, after nearly seven years of political wrangling and hitherto lean results, Congress appears to be taking Humphrey's advice.
It is seriously considering setting aside the 4 million tons of wheat embargoed from the Soviet Union last January as an emergency food reserve.
This is not exactly the international system of reserves Humphrey was originally looking for. But if approved in the next few days by the full Congress, this permanent stockpile of government-held grain would be available for urgent emergency needs at times when normal food aid suppliers run short.
Four million tons of grain, globally speaking, is a tiny amount. But under extenuating circumstances, it could make a huge difference.
It could help prevent another year like 1974, when US aid for thousands of starving Africans in the Sahel region was severely restricted after stocks had been drawn down by sales to the Soviets. At a time of dire need, grain shipments in the US Food for Peace program would plunge from 9 million tons to 2 .5 million.
"Even earlier this year when dire starvation struck Somalia and East Africa, the administration found itself running around like a chicken with its head cut off to raid other aid programs for funds," observes GAry Bombardier, a congressional staffer close to the reserve legislation. "The only way to respond was to rob Peter to pay Paul. But with this bill in place, the US would have flexibility to respond quickly to a crisis like that in East Africa."
Planners of the bill, which has just cleared a crucial House-Senate conference committee as an amendment to the Child Nutrition Act, had for years been trying to get various types reserve bills through Congress.
Only with the Soviet grain embargo would the reserve idea move ahead. Part of the explanation appears to be the sheer availability of that 4 million tons of wheat.
Also, the previous adamant opposition of the American Association of Wheatgrowers (AAW) has now been dropped.
The AAW had argued that existing farmer-held reserves would be adequate for emergency needs, although admittedly those reserves are not protected from the shifting commercial pressures. The farmers also worried that government use of an emergency reserve might interfere with market conditions in one way or another, and worsen the farmers' inflation-racked financial situation.
But the new reserve bill now is acceptable to the AAW, says its executve vice-president, Carl Schwensen, "as part of an overall legislative package of price supports for farmers and controls on how the new reserve would work."
The 4-million-ton reserve could only be used to "meet famine or other urgent or extraordinary relief requirements" if the Secretary of Agriculture determined that supplies needed for the US Food for Peace program were not otherwise available.
In any given year, the President could release up to 300,000 tons of grain in an emergency so urgent that time would not permit the normal bureaucratic procedures to be followed.
The reserve would operate -- and be replenished -- for an initial three-year period, when its performance would then be reassessed.
In addition, the language of the bill prohibits use of the reserve for anything but emergency humanitarian purposes.
"This makes a critical difference," according to Larry Minear of Church World Service/Lutheran World Relief. "It means that the reserve would be available for countries with dire human needs, but could not be drawn down for political reasons to aid countries that do not face such serious human emergencies."
Some people close to the legislative process argue that the reserve is not nearly large enough and that the US should not go ahead with such a reserve unilaterally but, rather, in coordination with other aid-donor countries.
But hunger analysts and key bill supporters -- such as Reps. Matthew McHugh (D) and Benjamin Gilman (R) of New York and Thomas Foley (D) of Washington, and Sen. George McGovern (D) of South Dakota -- say the reserve is a key component for dealing with hunger.
"It's clearly a step forward," argues Mr. Minear. "While it does not offer a panacea for solving continuing food insecurity in many countries, nor does it provide the international reserve for which Senator Humphrey worked, it does correct a 25-year deficiency in the US food-aid program. Heretofore, that aid has only been available when we had surpluses.Now it will be more reliably available."