Soviet food plan faces stiff hurdles

Months of research, compromise, and switched signals have yielded the outlines of a Soviet food-supply program, but a group of senior officials must now tackle key questions on implementing it.

So dauntingly complex are Soviet agricultural and food-supply hurdles that a quick solution is impossible. President Leonid Brezhnev, unveiling his avowedly complete ''food program'' May 24, acknowledged as much, promising no miracles.

But the Brezhnev announcement, at a session of the Communist Party Central Committee, also omitted points favored by the more reformist of Soviet economists and gave no hint of undoing key structural inefficiencies in the current system.

Precisely what the new program will accomplish, and precisely how ''new'' it turns out to be, will depend largely on discussions begun on the heels of the May 24 Central Committee meeting. The people doing the discussing, informed Soviet sources say, are a ''working group'' of senior officials. Some of them, the sources say, will form the nucleus of a central ''agro-industrial commission'' mentioned briefly in the Brezhnev address.

Their major, unanswered question is one of organization.

Picking up on experiments pursued with success in a few corners of this vast and varied nation, the Brezhnev program creates ''agro-industrial'' units not only at the top, but in ''districts, territories, regions, . . . republics.'' The idea is to tighten and rationalize links among the various elements in the food-supply process: farming, storage, transport, processing, marketing.

Mr. Brezhnev was quoted as announcing that ''special emphasis'' would be placed on local authority.

The question is how this will work within the huge, and often contradictory, bureaucracy. On paper, the new units are ''given large rights. They bear responsibility for improving food supply . . . and coordinating the work of all ministries and departments belonging to an agro-industrial complex.''

''In practice, it remains to be determined how such ''ministries and departments'' will feel about this and, of equal importance, how continued central planning will be reconciled with ''special emphasis'' on local units.

A senior official involved in preparing the food program says it appears likely the current discussions will produce a central ''agro-industrial commission'' including representatives of the state planning board and of various relevant government ministries. The group would be headed by an official with deputy-prime ministerial ranking, but much of its policy direction would be given by Mikhail Gorbachev, an agricultural specialist who sits on the Communist Party Politburo and Secretariat.

Present indications, the Soviet source says, are that one way to ensure real power for local agro-industrial committees is to channel at least some investment monies through them.

Even so, various Soviet sources acknowledge that serious organizational challenges or bureaucratic rivalries may well remain. One Central Committee member says that formal speeches delivered at the committee's session stressed the difficulties in coming up with a set organizational formula to cover varying ''local conditions.'' The official did not say which speakers had raised the point, but among those listed as addressing the meeting were party leaders from the republican and regional level.

Other major points of the food program remain to be clarified in practice -- among them, Mr. Brezhnev's announcement of widened incentives for workers on farms and related enterprises, and of a 1983 hike in the currently undervalued prices at which the state purchases a whole range of agricultural products.

The Brezhnev speech did call for more emphasis on incentives ''in kind'' -- that is, on giving workers a portion of the crop they produce, rather than more cash bonuses. But the Meanwhile, the hike in state purchase prices raises the question of whether retail cost of some heavily subsidized food items will also be increased, in a bid to let forces of supply and demand act on agricultural inefficiencies. Again, the Brezhnev speech leaves open the possibility. But Soviet officials interviewed afterward said they thought any retail price hike in state stores was extremely unlikely.

One Soviet economist, expressing a view shared by many Western experts, added that to raise incentives and purchase prices without a parallel change in retail prices risked merely ''subsidizing'' inefficiency.

Western economic analysts noted another hurdle for the food program, one that helps explain Mr. Brezhnev's care not to promise miracles: the lack of sufficient farm machinery, storage, transport, and processing facilities will take a long time to remedy, even under the best of circumstances.

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