Houston — Agricultural research's own success is creating problems that may have a long-term impact on the ability of the United States to help feed an increasingly hungry world.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts an explosion in world food needs over the next 20 years. Yet outside the USDA, many federal officials are more worried that immense farm surpluses will continue to drain the US Treasury.
Today's surpluses and higher farm productivity are the results of past research breakthroughs. One possible response is to control surpluses by cutting government funds for agricultural research. This approach is proposed in the Reagan administration's 1984 budget, which cuts agricultural research spending from 1983's $707 million to $704 million for '84. Crop production research funding is singled out for the largest cutbacks.
The amount cut may be small compared with the total agricultural research budget. But these cuts come at a time when many US experts are calling for increased agricultural research, which ultimately can help farmers worldwide meet future demand.
Outlining research aims for the next six years, USDA Agricultural Research Service administrator Terry B. Kinney Jr. says research is being redirected to ''help ease the surpluses.''
Yet even as spending cuts are being felt in USDA offices throughout the country, the department continues to warn that tremendous productivity advances are needed to meet expected world food demands. According to the just released Agricultural Research Service Program Plan, ''World food production must double in the next 40 years to meet projected demands.''
Population pressures may escalate world food needs faster than currently forecast. But the Agricultural Research Service report warns that ''even with low-demand projections, the required rates of productivity translate into dramatic numbers - 275 bushels per acre of corn by the year 2000 and 385 bushels per acre by the year 2050. Such yields equal or exceed the highest experimental yields ever produced and are about three times as high as average farm yields ( 110 bushels of corn per acre in 1981).''
The expected need for major productivity gains is centering interest on genetic engineering research in particular. Many experts argue that this area offers the best route to increased productivity.
Among the possibilities offered by genetic engineering:
* A perennial corn plant that combines improved nutrition with greater pest and drought resistance, while producing its own nitrogen fertilizer. Such a plant could also cut soil erosion by eliminating annual planting.
* Dwarf nut and fruit trees that mature quickly and reduce acreage needs by a factor of four while making harvesting a ground-level operation.
* Rich fields of food, fodder, and fiber crops irrigated with salt water.
Unlocking the full potential of many familiar and unfamiliar plants may depend on molecular biologists learning to remove a specific beneficial gene from one plant or animal and ''splice'' it into the cell of a crop-producing plant.
Such biotechnology advances are still in their earliest stages. But their time-saving and space-saving advantages could give classical plant breeders ''a new high-technology tool in a 10,000-year-old process.'' This is the promise outlined in ''Genetic Engineering of Plants,'' one of a series of reports on agricultural issues produced by the California Agricultural Lands Project (CALP) , a nonprofit group based in San Francisco.
Texas A&M University geneticist Elexis Bashaw agrees that cell-to-cell gene switching opens up tremendous possibilities. Working with an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, Dr. Bashaw has seen 12 years invested in developing a more digestible type of Bermuda grass, which improves cattle weight gain by 20 percent. With new technology, he says, the traditional plant selection and breeding process could be speeded up dramatically.
But along with the CALP study and with other experts, Bashaw warns that geneticists still have a tremendous amount to learn about the basic mechanics of plants before major advances can be put to use commercially.
The CALP study warns that a shortage of federal funds for basic agricultural research is creating serious problems. After quoting a number of experts who criticize USDA funding levels, the study concludes that ''the federal government is not yet financially committed to basic plant science and molecular biology.''
One researcher familiar with a Congressional Office of Technology Assessment report being prepared on USDA support for genetic engineering says the report will show that the USDA's own research teams ''haven't availed themselves of the latest technology.'' So instead of advances in agricultural technology being freely shared between university researchers and then with the farm sector as in the past, the latest developments may come instead from private labs in the US, Europe, and Japan.
In this case, the congressional report is expected to warn, advances may be slowed down and may be exploited for commercial profit to repay private industry's investment.
Anne Holiday Schauer, associate chief of the USDA's Competitive Grants Research Organization, says federal funding should be vastly increased because ''we know so little about how the genes are organized in a plant that it will take a massive amount of work just to know how useful biotechnology will be.''
Although current US food surpluses create political pressure to cut research funds, she says, ''the research that we are contracting for now is to provide what we will need in 10 to 15 years when we don't anticipate a glut.''