Washington — Secretary of Agriculture John Block, a handsome Illinois hog farmer and West Point graduate in a pin-striped suit, leans back in his tall leather chair. "My constituency?" he replies, somewhat amused at my question. "Well, it's everyone who has a stake in American agriculture being healthy. In a sense, that's the whole world -- every man, woman, and child who eats."
Secretary Block, like his predecessor Bob Bergland, is thinking in global terms -- well aware that the enormous productivity of US agriculture is the mainstay of the world grain situation and of food aid for the hungry.
But here the similarity with his predecessor abruptly ends.
The new secretary of agriculture represents a whole new kind of thinking about the role of America's awesome food power in a world of widespread malnutrition and hunger.
Four years ago when Mr. Bergland became secretary of agriculture, he said the test for the Carter administration's food policy would be its ability to use food aid for development in hungry lands, notm as a political weapon or device for getting rid of surpluses.
Secretary Block, by contrast, announced some months ago that food should be used as a "weapon" for US foreign policy. (He now prefers the softer phrase "tool for peace and stability.")
Mr. Bergland was concerned about revelations during the world food crisis of 1974 that US food aid and trade were making poor countries dangerously dependent on imported grain and discouraging the masses of poor farmers from becoming more productive.
Mr. Block, along with his boss in the White House, is worried first and foremost about inflation. He wants to let US agriculture operate "full throttle ," removing all trade restrictions and increasing third-world dependency on US agricultural exports. More profits for the American farmer, he says, are in America's -- and the world's -- best interest.
Other signals from the new administration suggest an increased "politicizing of food" is, indeed, in the offing.
As Mr. Reagan took office, his transition team was urging that aid programs (including food aid) be geared more toward strategically important developing countries.
The President, who said during the campaign that he wanted to lift the grain embargo against the Soviet Union, has decided against it --lest the wrong signal be given the Soviets while their troops remain on alert on the Polish border.
The President's budget director recently called for huge cuts in US aid spending and has leaned toward cutting altogether America's support for the international development banks, but those cuts were moderated at the insistence of Secretary of State Alexander Haig.
And so a corner has been turned.
But analysts of world hunger are worried about the new direction. In the past decade some quantum leaps have been made in the global fight against hunger. Analysts worry that the world's only "food superpower" may be pulling back from the fight. And at a very difficult time.
World grain harvests and stocks have dropped sharply.Import demands are on the rise from developing countries and the Soviet Union. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warns that stocks will dip well below the safe minimum level (17 percent of total world consumption) needed to handle a major unexpected shortage.
Will America's financial belt-tightening, hunger analysts ask, force the world's one-half billion severely malnourished people to tighten theirm belts another notch?
And will America's renewed attempts to stand up to the Soviets so politicize US food policies that long-term efforts to end hunger are emasculated in the process?
While the pressures grow to use "food power" to advance America's interests, pressure also grows for the administration to think through carefully what those "interests" are.
Some analysts studying the trade ties between rich and poor countries have been arguing that trade and development aid must increase,m not decrease, if the plight of the hungry nations is to be eased. That was the position taken by Thomas Ehrlich, former director of the International Development Cooperation Agency and top foreign aid adviser to former President Jimmy Carter.
Increasing investment in international development could also stimulate marketing of American goods abroad and US employment at home, according to Robert McNamara, outgoing president of the World Bank.But a pullback now he warned recently in US News & World Report, could mean widespread economic collapse in developing countries, and in turn, more political chaos.
"The United States can no longer . . . isolate itself from political disorder in other parts of the world as easily as . . . in the past. We see ample evidence of that today in the Middle East, and I think we'll see evidence of it in many other parts of the world."
In addition, a whole battery of hunger-related studies (like the reports of the US Presidential Commission on World Hunger, the Brandt Commission, "Global 2000") have been stressing that food power can be a two-edged sword. Food aid and trade that do not promote more equitable economic development in poor countries may profit rich countries in the short term but have devastating results for them in the long term -- even to the point of threatening their national security interests.
Iran is a dramatic case in point, according to new studies by scholars like Ann Schulz of Clark University, Eric Hoogland of Bowdoin College, M. A. Katouzian at the University of Kent (England), and State Department analysts.
In his efforts to industrialize iran and build up his military, the Shah let Iran's agricultural sector stagnate and thus built up enormous dependency on the US for food. Industrialization and urbanization produced slums and a dissatisfied, and eventually unemployed, urban proletariat. This mass move to the cities left Iran's precarious irrigation system untended and the country's agriculture approached collapse. All this helped push Iran down the road to revolution.
Many developing countries face similar problems today: Investment in industrial areas and cities lures huge numbers of young people away from the farms; those still in the countryside begin to feel they are being excluded from their country's development; agriculture does not keep pace with growing population and demand for food.
Iran ended up turning radically to the West for imports. This brought the US more than $1 billion per year in grain trade by the late 1970s. It also gave revolutionary groups one of their strongest reasons for dissatisfaction with the Shah and with the United States.m
It will take farsighted planning of food policies, these analysts say, if such a destabilizing mix of global and local food policies is to be avoided in the future.
Already the United States is knee-deep in another sticky crisis: El Salvador. At the center of controversy there, in addition to East-West issues, are critical issues of food.
The country's massive land reform program, designed by civilians to give peasant farmers greater participation in the country's food production, is caught in a cross-fire between the civilian-military junta and leftist forces opposing the junta. The recent assassination of the civilian director of the reforms, Jose Rodolfo Viera, along with two American advisers, has left the program in the hands of men more closely linked to the Army.
Perhaps no current crisis suggests the dilemmas of food politics more clearly: Can popular land reforms be successfully completed under a regime heavily influenced by a military more concerned about guerrillas than peasant rights?
Should the Unites States press for a return to civilian control, risking accusations of interfering with El Salvador's internal affairs? To what degree can the US afford to be identified with such an authoritarian regime --even one that opposes leftist influences --when peasants show signs of dissatisfaction with that regime?
The Reagan administration also faces major choices on how to relate to the hunger-battling efforts sparked by the 1973 food crisis.
The 1974 World Food Conference set in motion new mechanisms to cope with unexpected food shortages and ease the effects of national and international food policies that have kept 800 million people in poor countries locked in such grinding poverty that they cannot buy food or the means to produce it.
The World Food Council (which coordinates global food activities) is apparently encouraged by food strategies being put together in developing countries. "World food security" has been strengthened by annual international contributions of 9.1 million tons of food aid (the goal is 10 million tons a year), and a 400,000-ton emergency food reserve held by the UN World Food Program (still 100,000 tons short of the goal).
In 1978 the US set up a farmer-held national grain reserve (30 million tons); last year it set aside the 4 million tons of grain embargoed from the USSR and earmarked them for emergency humanitarian needs. Formation of the International Development Cooperation Agency in 1978 gave foreign aid an independent voice in US policymaking, but the agency's future is now in doubt.
Perhaps most significant is the new effort to channel aid to peasant farmers in tropical areas where the vast majority of hungry people live. Active participation of these farmers is considered indispensable to the effort to end hunger.
The US Agency for International Development has shifted the focus of its programs and research toward small farmers, as have the regional research institutes coordinated by the World Bank's Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (which developed the Green Revolution's high-yield seeds).
Experimental "foods corps" projects are being launched in various African regions in an effort to share modern farming techniques with poor farmers.
The poorest countries have received a boost from the International Fund for Agricultural Development. The $1 billion fund, which became operational in 1978 , recycles surplus oil wealth of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (as well as moneys from the Western and developing countries) toward development.
But the US will be making some major decisions about food policy soon, and they could make or break many of these efforts.
What to do, for instance, with the stalled talks on a new international wheat agreement (the old one expires in September) that poor countries say they desperately need as a protection against extreme swings of grain prices?
Will the US live up to commitments it has made to the international development banks?
Will the US respond to the call of the World Food Council to help established a minimum food reserve of 12 million tons, 5 million of it to be held in the developing countries?
And will the International Monetary Fund, of which the US is a major backer, set up the proposed "food financing facility" to keep food prices stable for poor, oil-imploring countries whose economies are hard-hit by rising oil prices?
For all the hopes of developmentalists that larger investments now could make quantum leaps possible in the war on hunger, a major American pullback may be inevitable, at least in the short run.
Last year's economic woes and heightened political tensions turned US energies away from development issues to national defense and bogged down ongoing discussions between rich and poor nations.
Overall US contributions to international development have sunk to .19 percent of the US gross national product -- one of the lowest of all donor countries, and far short of the UN's goal of 7. percent for the rich countries. And the new Reagan budget proposes cuts of foreign assistance programs from $7. 24 billion down to $5.39 billion.
World Food Council officials now warn that a radical pullback by the US could force developing countries to set up regional economic plans, isolate themselves from the industrialized North, even turn to communist nations for development help.
Secretary Block, for his part, says the US pullback is a short-term necessity -- part of America's effort to get inflation under control. He hopes US cooperation and trade with developing countries will increase once that is achieved.
But if a pullback does take place, development analysts wonder if the administration will ever commit itself to rebuilding American support behind hunger and development efforts. To date many Reagan administration appointees appear to be people with relatively little interest or expertise in development issues.
"Most of the aid community has never even served in a third-world country or lived overseas," laments one worried UN official.
Those in the Reagan administration who know something about international politics, like US Ambassador to the United Nations Jean Kirkpatrick, have expressed much more support than the Carter administration for working with regimes that pay little attention to broad-based development for their people.
Nevertheless the administration says it wants to uphold some important US commitments such as those to the international banks --subject to, as the recent Reagan budget puts it, "how well these institutions are serving the US and the international community." And White House aides say there is new "enthusiasm" to try for a new wheat agreement this year.
Contributions to the international banks are normally made over a period of several years. While the Reagan budget proposes cuts in the contributions the Carter administration had promised the banks next year, it says the US will increase payments in future years to make up the difference. Jean Kirkpatrick was herself instrumental in saving US funds for the banks and UN organizations.
Only time will tell whether Congress and the White House carry through with support for development. But their decision, along with the overall balance of political, economic, and humanitarian goals in US food policy, will say much about the future of human development across the entire planet.