Food: the First Soviet Priority

August 30, 1991

British Prime Minister John Major's conversation with President Bush yesterday placed Western priorities on aiding the Soviet Union squarely where they belong -- on providing emergency food supplies to get a worried population through the coming winter.

The situation is close to terrifying. Arkady Volsky, one of the four reformers placed in charge of the post-coup Soviet economy, has estimated that state farms have produced only 25 million metric tons of grain for large cities, less than a third of the 85 million tons needed. The International Wheat Council forecasts that 35 million tons will have to be imported, a 40 percent jump over last season's imports. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has upped this figure to 42 million tons, just since the failed coup threw the nation into turmoil.

There are reports of drought, a breakdown in distribution systems and severe shortages of machinery, pesticides and fuel supplies. Many store shelves are empty; long queues proliferate; people worry whether they will have enough bread and potatoes. What about seeds for next year's crops?

Mr. Major, current chairman of the Group of Seven industrial democracies, said at a Kennebunkport press conference with Mr. Bush, that "we need to respond compassionately to the urgent needs that the Soviet people have at the present time." He said G-7 "lifeline" teams would soon be going to the Soviet Union to help in establishing efficient food production and distribution systems. What the G-7 requires, he added, is "some mechanism" for coordinating the gigantic effort that will be needed. Do we detect the beginnings of an international Marshall Plan?

The prime minister's assessment prompted Mr. Bush to state that "we're going to step up attention to urgent humanitarian assistance for food." Nevertheless, the president continued to be cautious about extending large-scale financial aid until competing Soviet elements "sort out" the present situation and come up with a credible economic reform plan. The problem is that this may take a lot more time than the approaching winter will permit.

Congress is getting set for a major debate on the issue. House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin has called for a diversion of funds from the defense budget to provide Soviet aid on security as well as humanitarian grounds, a stance opposed by some Democrats transfixed by the need to solve domestic problems.

The president described the Aspin proposal as "premature" but added -- perhaps significantly -- that if the Soviet situation is handled properly "there's an opportunity for a vastly restructured national security posture." For Mr. Bush, this is an extraordinary comment. The world scene has changed so drastically in the year since budget caps for defense, domestic and foreign-aid spending were devised that a strong case can be made for revisions to help deal with the Soviet crisis -- provided overall spending limits remain in place.

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