Food: the forgotten strategic commodity

When people talk or hear about ''strategic trade'' they think of missiles, nuclear weapons and power, technological equipment, pipelines, and various forms of energy. Nearly everything believed to be of a ''strategic'' nature is related to either hot or cold war.

Strangely enough, only rarely does anyone suggest that food is the most strategic item of all for millions of people around the world. America has a unique ability to produce an abundance of food in the agricultural heartland of America. We are a reliable supplier of the most strategic of all commodities found in international trade--food.

Thousands of men, women, and children die each day in countries around the world that are unable to feed their own people. Their ability to produce food has not kept pace with their population growth and they know they can look to us for this life-saving commodity. Not only that, our farmers have always been anxious to share their abundance with the less fortunate in the world--it's just a matter of being given the opportunity to do so.

In 1776 almost 90 percent of the people in the United States lived on farms. We were an agrarian society out of necessity, and even in those earliest days Americans demonstrated their willingness to share what they produced with neighboring Indians. At that time, it took eight or nine people working full time to feed themselves and their families plus one other person. Since that time the percentage of the population still engaged in farming has dwindled to less than 3 percent.

Modern farm and agricultural technology enable the American farmer today to feed himself and about 70 others. This unparalleled success story should be told , unabashedly, to our friends and enemies around the world as well as to many Americans who believe food comes from supermarket shelves. That small 3 percent engaged in farming not only assures Americans of a good diet at reasonable prices, they also are helping thousands in other lands avoid famine and starvation.

If further proof were needed of the value and strategic importance of agricultural products, food and fiber, we need look only at their role in helping maintain our international balance of trade. Just a few years ago agricultural exports were paying for the oil we imported to heat our homes, run our industries and keep a nation on wheels moving. Our international trade deficit would be unconscionable if we withheld or reduced agricultural exports. For example, in 1981 we imported $61.9 billion of crude oil and exported $43.8 billion in agricultural commodities to feed the world. Strategic trade? Food products certainly must be classified ''strategic.''

These figures also point out the absolute necessity of increasing our exports of the food and fiber we produce so abundantly, so consistently each year. Food will create far more friends than bullets or bayonets and all the electronic technology mankind can devise. Nations can exist without all the modern gadgets man can conceive--but they won't survive without food.

Strategic trade? I have often said the Vietnam war may never have taken place if the North Vietnamese had had adequate food for its hungry masses. South Vietnam had the rice fields which the North needed to feed its people.

I have never advocated using food as a hostage to force countries into diplomatic negotiations, but our abundance of food and our capacity to produce it can be used to demonstrate to the rest of the world what the fruits of freedom and democracy can be--the freedom to produce and innovate for the benefit of mankind.

Several years ago I visited South America and found the people there were not interested in whether or not the US could maintain parity with the Soviet Union in an arms race. They weren't the least bit interested in new, sophisticated weapons of war--they wanted to know how we were able to produce such an abundance of high quality food.

Taking off my congressional hat and replacing it with my hat as a life-long farmer, I merely answered, ''That's the American way.'' They've seen the results of farm production in the US and wanted to know the secret of our success.

Strategic trade? Let's never forget the most important commodity of all - one we take for granted in our country - food. A great tool for use in international diplomacy, the greatest of all instruments in our quest for peace, a ''weapon'' no other nation can match.

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