Soviet farm-cast: a leap or a drag

With the ``green revolution,'' India reached self-sufficiency in agriculture in about six years. Sir John Harvey-Jones believes the Soviet Union could do the same in the next five to 10 years. Sir John is chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd., a major British chemical concern. ICI has been conducting a farm management experiment in the Soviet Union for two years.

Company specialists advise the Soviets who run four large farms in widely different locations. They visit the farms once a month and tell the farmers what to use in the way of seed, fertilizer, insecticides, and so on.

The result has been a doubling of output, Sir John says. In Hungary and Bulgaria, where ICI has held the same advisory role at several farms for more than four years, output has risen five to 10 times.

To Sir John, this is an elaborate way of selling fertilizers and other chemicals. To the Soviets, it offers a way of dealing with their farm dilemma -- stagnant, insufficient production.

If Mikhail Gorbachev embraced such agricultural advances, as Sir John suspects he will, it could make a key difference to world farm markets. It would add to the economic problems of farmers in the great central plains of the United States and Canada.

Already North American farmers are seeing their world market shrinking. Through the introduction of a system of rewards for their work, China's peasants produce sufficient food to export a little. Through subsidies, the European Community also exports farm products. India and Pakistan are basically self-sufficient in food.

But because of the Soviet Union's economic record, Sir John's expectations for Soviet farm output prompt considerable skepticism.

``I have not talked to any experts in the field who will predict the Soviets would be agriculturally self-sufficient in five or six years,'' says Robert Koopman, a specialist on Soviet agriculture in the US Department of Agriculture.

Washington farm economist John A. Schnittker calls the Soviet Union a ``tower of strength'' for grain exporting nations. It imports about 30 million metric tons of grain in a good crop year, as much as 52 million tons in a bad year.

Mr. Koopman does see a chance for the Soviets to get farm output growing again. He notes that Mr. Gorbachev has consolidated the nation's Agriculture Ministry and the departments that supply the equipment, fertilizers, and other farming needs into one super agro-industrial agency -- Gosagriprom.

That could be helpful.

Further, once Soviet farms have met their quotas at fixed prices, they will be allowed to sell the rest of their crop anywhere they can at whatever price they can get.

``These are the kinds of changes that can improve Soviet agricultural productivity,'' Koopman says. ``But they will not turn Soviet agriculture into a rip-roaring industry.''

Aside from weak financial incentives, Soviet farm output suffers from inadequate transportation and storage facilities and from poor coordination and cooperation between the suppliers of farm equipment or other materials and the producers themselves. There is some suspicion that soil fertility is declining. Further, more than 80 percent of Soviet grain out put comes from farms in areas climatically equivalent to the area north of Minneapolis, where weather makes farming more risky and difficult.

Nonetheless, as Mr. Schnittker says, ``US farmers live in fear of losing the Soviet market. Anything that is going on that would bring Soviet grain production up to their targets would be of great importance.''

Indeed, there has been a considerable change of attitude in the US farming community. American farmers still regard themselves, probably rightly, as among the most, if not the most, efficient and scientific farmers in the world. Until recent times, they were happy to share that farming know-how with the rest of the world. They regarded it as their contribution to easing world famine. Now many are more reluctant to pass on the farming technology.

Africa still needs free food to avert starvation in some areas. But the commercial markets of the world are aflood with farm products. And most of that output from the well-to-do nations is subsidized for domestic political reasons.

That produces some oddities. The European Community, for instance, is reportedly thinking of using some of its surplus (and partly rancid) ``butter mountain'' as part of cattle feed. The United States has launched a subsidy war with the EC on farm exports. And the Soviets, resenting the fact they are ineligible for the same subsidies given to exports to Algeria, Tunisia, or some other poor countries, are holding back on buying American corn or wheat.

In addition, the Soviets are still punishing the US for the Carter administration's embargo on grain sales at the time of their invasion of Afghanistan. They prefer to buy grain from Canada, Australia, Argentina, or elsewhere.

Faced with this loss of world market share, this week US farm organizations were objecting to a World Bank loan that will, for example, stimulate farm output in Brazil.

Last week a National Commission on Agricultural Trade and Export Policy, composed of 35 members from Congress and the private agricultural sector, called for more-aggressive action by the federal government to deal with the ``unfair'' competition from abroad for farm exports. They also urged that land-grant universities be required to seek approval from the secretary of agriculture whenever the US funds an agricultural research project benefiting another country. The US Agency for International Development spends some $750 million a year on foreign agriculture.

World population continues to grow rapidly. Standards of living are also rising, prompting more per capita consumption of food. So far, however, farm output has grown even faster.

If the Soviets join that production parade, it will throw the world food markets into a worse dither. Steven McCoy, associate director of the agricultural trade commission, says it would put US farmers under ``great pressure.''

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