The recent plenum of the Soviet Central Committee is not getting the attention it deserves. Western observers have placed too much emphasis on the promotion of ex-KGB chief Yuri Andropov to the party Secretariat while largely ignoring the main thrust of the meeting which was to adopt a major food program for the USSR.
In contrast to its treatment in the Western press, the Brezhnev food program is the center of attention in Soviet media.
It is not all propaganda. Nor is the program only relevant to the serious consumer-goods situation in the Soviet Union: it could also bear upon Soviet foreign policy, even the approaching United States-Soviet talks on scaling down the arms race.
President Brezhnev himself unfurled what he called the ''Food Program of the USSR for the Period Until 1990 and Measures for Its Realization.'' As Nikita Khrushchev did before him, Brezhnev deplored the ''irregularities'' in supplying the population with adequate amounts of food, the excessive centralization of agro-management, and the need to stimulate Soviet farmers by a variety of inducements, including encouragement of the small ''household plots,'' or kitchen gardens. These small enterprises are attached not only to the collectivized-type farms in the village but to plants and factories in urban areas. Colossal sums of money, Brezhnev indicated, are to be poured into the program as a whole. Rubles in the past have been ''thrown'' at Soviet agriculture. However, this time more than financial injections are planned.
The county-sized political administrative jurisdiction - the ''rayon'' or ''district'' - will be given a new lease on life in the program. Since the plenum itself, the details of how such partial decentralization will be accomplished have been discussed in the Soviet press. The gist of the reform consists in giving the ''agro-industrial complex'' at the grass roots level ''independent planning and managerial prerogatives, for the first time in our practice'' as Pravda put it.
The food targets that are to be obtained by 1990 by means of the reform (household plots and privately-used livestock and poultry will get protective shelters and other accoutrements at state expense), according to Mr. Brezhnev, will permit the USSR to cut imports of food from the West. Some of the capitalist states, he said, ''have attempted to convert commercial operations - e.g., sale of grain - into a form of pressure applied to our country as a political weapon.'' The program, he said, still must depend on cooperation with the other Soviet-bloc countries. (Coincidentally, the leader of food-exporting Hungary, Janos Kadar, was awarded the Order of Lenin the day after the plenum.)
In the eight years until 1990, percentage increases in food supplies (per capita), set by the food program are to reach high levels: meat, 20 percent; vegetables, 40 percent; eggs, 11 percent; milk and dairy products, 8 percent; fish, 11 percent.
As for grain, the harvests of which have been scandalously low for three years running, Brezhnev anticipates that by 1990 the harvest will rise to the level of from 250-255 million tons, or 32 percent above last year's figure. This is an extremely ambitious target, especially given the fact of dependency on the sharply rising imports of grain by the USSR that add about 17 percent to what can be presently harvested at home (the US share is about one-quarter of the total imports).
There is no doubt that the program, whether partly or fully realized by 1990, has political significance. In his Central Committee report late last year, the General Secretary explicitly noted the ''political'' consequences stemming from neglect of consumer goods. But he also said at that time (as he did not at the May plenum) that the country's defense needs would have first priority. The people, he said, had encountered privations before; they could surmount them again.
Obviously, the privations have deepened since then. Amid reports of serious shortages, some at the critical level, in various parts of the USSR, the leadership is prepared to take concerted action to bring the worsening food problem under control. This raises the guns vs. butter question on the very eve of the START talks between the US, which has plenty of food, and the Soviet Union, which needs heads of lettuce more than warheads.
Are the Soviets beginning to feel the pinch?