Global agriculture

THE nomination of Richard Lyng to be the secretary of agriculture, to replace John Block, has answered no more than the question of who will be the secretary of agriculture -- one of the least significant of a series of weighty questions facing agriculture during this and coming years. Mr. Lyng is well liked by both Democrats and Republicans. As to whether or not there will be a change in agricultural policy, one has only to recall the statement made by the new secretary that he and John Block are as alike ``as two peas in a pod.'' One should also remember that it was not John Block who was determining farm policy, but the White House, and this is certainly not going to change. Mr. Lyng, who is a good Republican and a good team player, will do nothing to upset the balance of power within the administration.

The problems facing him are already intensifying. Because of some technicality in calculating the farmers' proven yields, most of them now stand to lose from 3 percent to about 30 percent of the government supports on which they were counting. The former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee is expected to submit a bill to correct that, and it will find support in both chambers at the Capitol and by both parties. There are many, furthermore, who feel that this will be but the first of a strong stream of bills submitted to protect the farmers' income at a time when income levels are down.

Any possible solution to the problems faced by American agriculture is, however, complicated by the fact that a long-range solution is not to be found in the domestic market, where most citizens who can afford it are already eating as much as they can. Grain and livestock consumption are, furthermore, trending lower rather than higher. The solution is to be found only in the world market, where other nations are also struggling with agriculture problems, but they are not permitting their foreign policy and other considerations to interfere with their economics. This means continued and very strong competition for foreign markets -- despite all the efforts the US will make to negotiate a global solution. One should, therefore, not raise high hopes or, when these do not materialize, blame either Mr. Lyng or Clayton Yeutter, the new special trade representative for the President, who will be responsible for the negotiations. Mr. Yeutter has an agricultural background and is quite sympathetic to the farm problem. Neither of them can do anything that will erase the years of neglect or outright abuse of one of the nation's greatest assets: the extent of its producing land, the fertility of its soils, and the ingenuity of its farmers.

No one is now discussing publicly that agriculture is in a worldwide revolution, although earlier the Department of Agriculture continued to indicate that American agriculture had reached a crossroads. Congress appears to be aware of the domestic problem. The legislators are, however, chiefly providing what must be only domestic and temporary solutions to the problems. The administration continues -- and so far with little success or hope for success -- to fight a growing budget outlay for agriculture. And the farmers continue to make requests for a domestic solution -- that is, federal outlays of cash for farmers.

It will not be easy to find a solution. But the first step in that direction would appear to be to have the government address the question of why agriculture is important to the United States. It could begin with that understanding. At one point it might have been able to do more about it by taking action here in the United States. At the present time this is out, and it must fight other, competing countries for a solution that they too are seeking -- but for themselves.

Joseph Halow is executive director of North American Export Grain Association Inc.

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