MOSCOW -- And now for the good news about Soviet agriculture:
Through September of this year, overall food production was up 1.4 percent over last year's level. Milk production is running 2 percent higher than last year, meat production just 2 percent lower. Production of sausage, cheese, flour and bread are all at or above last year's levels. This autumn's grain harvest is estimated at 240 million tons, an all-time record.
True, a Soviet agricultural record is not always much to brag about. But the Soviet Union far outstrips the United States in production of several major food products: Potato production is more than three times as high as in the United States, the fish catch more than twice as large, the wheat crop nearly twice as big, and milk production two-thirds higher.
So why are stores in Moscow and many other Soviet cities literally stripped of basic foodstuffs, and their meat cases stocked with packets of pepper or Turkish tea to cover shop managers' embarrassment?
Why are Western governments and charities scurrying to organize emergency food aid for the Soviet Union?
The truth behind the statistics, Soviet economists and foreign diplomats say, is that there's enough food grown in the Soviet Union to keep the population nourished.
But the system of transport, storage and distribution has virtually disintegrated, and panic buying prevents the restoration of any balance to the market.
"Production of some things is down a couple of percent, but we're not talking about 10 percent or 20 percent," said one Western diplomat here who studies the food supply. "The basic problem this year is, the distribution of commodities has broken down to a considerable degree."
This diplomat, who travels widely in the Soviet Union, said food supplies vary greatly from place to place, with some cities well-stocked.
"There's a lot of frustration. There are spot shortages. But I don't think there's the threat of mass hunger," he said.
"We see no credible evidence of anything approaching famine anywhere in the country at this point," said another Western envoy who has watched the Soviet economy over many years. "I see a tendency to dramatize all this in the West."
Yet the overall breakdown -- which prompted President Mikhail S. Gorbachev Friday to order workers' committees and the KGB to search out and punish abusers -- may put at risk any food aid that arrives here. Food with Western labels generally never appears on store shelves, but is sold by warehouse or shop personnel to black marketeers.
The first charitable packages arrived last week and were tracked to hospitals and old-age homes by eager television crews and Russian Orthodox priests. But if aid reaches a significant scale, such vigilance is unlikely.
Meanwhile, a widening trade war has paralyzed food shipments between jurisdictions, as each city and republic tries to hang on to whatever it produces. The biggest cities, Moscow and Leningrad, are victims of a blockade by rural regions resentful that food sales in the cities are now limited to residents of those cities and by Communist hard-liners who want to undercut the cities' new, democratic leadership.
"We know we have wheat and bread in this country, but where is it?" Moscow Mayor Gavriil K. Popov, a pro-market economist, asked Friday. "It's hidden on state and collective farms. And these people are members of parliament, decorated with medals."
Rail yards are clogged with wagons awaiting unloading and trucks idled for weeks for lack of fuel, so that freight shipments move at an average speed of 3 miles an hour -- walking speed, as Komsomolskaya Pravda pointed out recently.
Thieves and black marketeers siphon off an ever-bigger percentage of food from the official stores, an extremely profitable venture with the enormous gap between subsidized state prices and market prices.
As German trucks and planes reach Moscow with donated food, dozens of boxcars of German food are stalled for weeks at the Soviet border, awaiting transfer to Soviet trains, which run on a different gauge rail. And this food was not charity -- it was purchased by the Soviet Union for scarce hard currency.
Potential donor countries are responding variously to Soviet requests for help, which originated with Mr. Gorbachev.
The Germans are far in the lead, with Chancellor Helmut Kohl orchestrating a big campaign of personal donations. Together, Germany, Canada, Italy, Spain and Britain have pledged about $10 billion in food aid, according to Gorbachev spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko.
Japan has deliberately rejected food donations for the time being but is sending $20 million worth of medical supplies, also in critical shortage. "When the wheat harvest is the best in recent years, why do people starve? There is no easy answer," said a baffled Taizo Watanabe, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman.
The United States has been very skeptical about the need for food aid. But President Bush revealed Friday that he is considering offering credits to help the Soviets buy U.S. food, a move influenced in part by the potential benefit to U.S. farmers.
The most popular Soviet television show, "Vzglyad" (View), devoted its Friday night broadcast to explaining the need for a market economy and trying to calm public fear and panic. The program accused the conservative government of Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov of creating an anti-market "psychosis" on the part of the public.
"In reality, we are only now beginning to talk about economics without ideological cliches," the program said in an editorial. "No one is going to die of hunger. A good life is a happy life, and you can't build it out of fear and envy."