Is some US grain getting into the Soviet Union despite the embargo ordered by President Carter? Rumors of indirect leakage persist despite official US Department of Agriculture (USDA) insistence that it is "too early to tell" and US grain industry assurances that even the most indirect violation would be much too "risky."
The problem, experts agree, is that slippage can easily occur in a number of ways and that catching it may be a more difficult job than Agriculture Secretary Robert Bergland wants the industry and foreign governments to believe.
On Feb. 14 Secretary Bergland disclosed that a "super- high secret" international grain-monitoring effort is under way. Anyone caught diverting US grain to Soviet ports, he said, would be "disbarred" from American markets.
"No one can take the chance of being excluded from US markets," comments Stuart Baird, spokesman for Cargill Inc., one of the largest US grain exporters. "And we would expect our foreign affiliates to observe the letter and spirit of the embargo. Given the public and industry attitude toward it, it [breaking the embargo] would be a terrible, terrible risk. There's just too much at stake."
Yet virtually everyone who deals with grain from industry to government concedes that the possibilities for diversion are definite. Once a ship has left port, it could receive entirely new shipping instructions (to head, say, for the Soviet Union) from the next buyer or from a foreign affiliate. If the grain were purchased on the spot market, no new papers would be required and a destination change could occur in a matter of minutes. Or, once in port at a destination, a ship could easily be reloaded or rerouted. That has been the concern of some grain-watchers here, who note that Eastern Europe is expected to import a record 17 million metric tons of grain in this marketing year.
"I don't think a lot of grain would be transshipped through Eastern Europe -- their port facilities are more likely to be tied up with their own needs," comments Thomas R. Saylor, associate administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service. Nonetheless, he admits that such rerouting "would be difficult to catch."
In general, Mr. Saylor says, "We can cover most, or about 90 percent, of the movements [by monitoring]. It's the other 10 percent that's going to be difficult."
"Our own feeling," one farm group spokesman says, "is that it's about as hard to track the grain companies as Russian intelligence."
Secretary Bergland has said that the only place the United States might encounter a slippage problem of any importance as if Western European merchants bought grain from the US and diverted it on the high seas from a European to a Soviet destination. He noted that the nine nations of the European Community, as well as Canada and Australia -- all major grain exporters -- have agreed not to go beyond their normal shipments to the Soviets to fill the gap left by the US embargo.
Even Argentina, the country that will supply much of the grain the Soviets would have purchased from the US (and at a higher price) has been "somewhat cooperative" with the aims of the US embargo, according to a USDA spokesman.
The USDA now estimates that Moscow, from a variety of sources, will buy as much as 28 million metric tons of grain before the end of this marketing year. But, the USDA says, the Soviets will still have about 2 percent less grain available to feed their people than before the embargo.