Compare America's bountiful agricultural "machine" to your comfortable family car. Drive at 50 miles per hour down a good highway, and you can expect to hum along smoothly all day without a hitch. Next rev the same car up to race down a twisting, unfamiliar road at 70 m.p.h. For your second trip, you'll have to pay a great deal more attention to your driving. You also face the possibility of serious trouble, perhaps burning up your engine or skidding off the road.
US and foreign agricultural experts meeting near Minneapolis last weekend concluded that the road ahead for US agriculture is not only twisting and potholed but virtually unposted.
Even without clear signposts to mark the danger points, the experts know that hidden curves lie ahead. And most of the experts assembled for the University of Minnesota's three-day seminar agreed that a projected sharp rise in foreign demand for US farm products will force the US agricultural machine to operate at full throttle.
That means American farmers in the '80s will be under increasing pressure from several directions to plant every available acre and get maximum yields on each acre. This situation will mean, in turn, that land and water resources in the United States will be stretched to new limits. This stretching will extend throughout the US economy as agriculture's needs for energy, transportation, and processing facilities compete with high demands from other sectors.
Increasing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to improve crop yields will also add to US environmental problems.
Among the experts representing government and private interests from the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, the European community, and Africa, not all agreed with the implications of the conference's title: "From Food Surpluses to Food Scarcity: Who Will Pay?"
Agricultural economist G. Edward Schuh of the University of Minnesota argued that US farmers in the '80s once again may face the problem of excess food supplies worldwide rather than the scarcity others predict. Professor Schuh sees the possibility of political shifts in developing countries increasing food production to the extent that many countries will return to "dumping" food on the world market. This would force the United States back into the situation persisting until the '70s whereby heavy federal price supports were needed to keep US farmers in business.
Most other conference participants felt that while severe supply fluctuations may bring short periods of oversupply, the '80s will launch a new situation characterized by world food scarcity. This expected switch from a buyer's market to a seller's market, most speakers explained, can benefit the US if the US prepares for the switch with well-coordinated, long-term policies.
Patrick O'brien, assistant director for situation and outlook at the US Department of Agriculture, presented detailed figures on world agricultural production, consumption, and trade since 1950 to support his conclusion that surplus will turn to scarcity in the '80s.
Dr. O'Brien identified a steady trend leading to the "internationalization of american agriculture." He expects this trend to continue with more countries growing more dependent on US farm products.
Along with other speakers recommending specific policies, O'Brien said the United States must recognize both the positive and negative consequences for the US of growing world dependence on US agriculture.
The positive impact is clear from this past year's record agricultural export earnings of more than $40 billion.
The negative impact is harder to calculate. It includes the steady drain on American resources represented by soil erosion, water quality deterioration, and dwindling underground water supplies. Such hidden costs will continue to be billed to future generations in terms of reduced US agricultural productive capacity --unless the US devises some pricing system to bill these costs to customers today.
Another negative impact noted by agricultural economists, government officials, and a moral philosopher invited to address the conference is that the United States is being placed in a difficult moral position. As the chief source of grain for export, if serious shortages develop, the US will have to choose between selling grain to countries such as the Soviet Union able to pay in gold or to under-developed countries able to pay only with doubtful promises.
At the worst, the United States could find itself in the dreaded "lifeboat" situation, tempted to throw some "hopeless" countries to the sharks in order to keep the lifeboat afloat for the benefit of more "survivable" countries.
At the best, this conference's experts explained, the United States will start work immediately to draw up international policies that prepare for the problems of world food scarcity.