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Four ways to look at a wheat field

There is a truly exhaustive study on breakfast cereals in the latest issue of Consumer Reports. How much sugar does each brand of cereal contain? How much salt? What is the "nutritional quality" of cold cereal as compared to hot cereal? Does vitamin "fortification" help?

Fifty-seven boxes of cereal decorate the magazine cover in the form of a labyrinth, symbolizing our national search for the Perfect Food, as if in brans and fibers we hoped to find eternal life -- or at least a flat stomach while it lasts.

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The diet-obsessed American consumer, shopping for the ideal morning bowlful -- this is one way to look at a wheat field.

For a second perspective, the eye must get down to the level of the american prairie -- the nose, close enough to smell the earth -- adopting the farmer's view. What an expanse of soil still remains! There are 1,017,030,357 acres of farmland in the United States, according to the census, although that figure is said to be dropping by three million acres a year.

Somewhere in the middle of all those acres, like a tiny figure on an enormous graph, the American farmer sits upon his harvester. The population of the United States has more than doubled since 1920. At the same time, the number of farmers has declined from 13,432,000 to 3,774,000.

But oh my, is the incredible shrinking farmer getting efficient! This year, according to World Business Weekly, the American farmer will account for 46 percent of the wheat traded in world markets, an increase of more than ten percent in ten years.

Why, then, is he a vanishing American? More statistics. During the same decade the farmer's expenses have grown 11.5 percent a year while his income rose at a rate of just 10.5.

The American farmer has gotten richer only in terms of real estate, if he sells the farm. Both native and foreign investors -- French, Japanese, Arabs -- wait at the edge of the wheat fields with ready cash and blueprints for shopping centers and a full crop of condominiums.

In corporate farming -- the agriconglomerate -- the only hope for keeping arable land arable?

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The American farmer who can't win for winning -- here is another way to look at a wheat field.

Washington, of course, provides a third perspective. From the Capitol steps and the windows of the White House those stalks of grain bending in the wind sometimes look like voters. Sometimes they look like whips, waiting to be lashed. The new Secretary of Agriculture, John Block, speaks for many when he refers to food as a weapon -- indeed America's most powerful diplomatic weapon. "A bushel of wheat for a barrel of oil," as the saying goes.

The waving field of grain as America's OPEC -- this is still another way to look at a wheat field.

The eye in search of a fourth perspective moves even further away -- out of the country altogether. In 1930 there were two billion human beings on earth. That figure has more than doubled. According to the United Nations, at least one out of six of the human beings alive today is undernourished. Food may be a disposable temptation to the American dieter. Fodd may be a poor profit risk for the American farmer. Food may be a reward-and-punishment device for the American official faced with a recalcitrant third world.

For the one in six human beings undernourished in the world -- including at least 350 million children below the age of five -- food is the prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread." And if the dieter, the farmer, the politician, and the rest of us fail to answer the prayer, the world will have failed, whatever the world's other accomplishments.

In news photographs the eyes of these children stare with the fierce sadness of habitual hunger -- this is the final way to look at a wheat fie ld.

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