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USSR: bread, yes; meat, sometimes

The Soviet Union has launched a two-front battle to counter shortages of meat , milk, and feedgrain for the cattle that produce the meat and milk. On one front -- the international marketplace -- the Soviets seem to be doing well, having contracted for large deliveries of grain from abroad, particularly from Argentina and Canada.

This is one reason the Soviets can afford to let US suppliers stew for at least a while in the aftermath of their embargo on grain sales to the USSR, lifted by President Reagan recently.

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Moscow has also contracted in recent months to buy beef from Argentina and Finland, and it is purchasing more mutton from Australia.

But here is a home front, too, to the agricultural offensive of an enormous superpower that is still unable fully to feed itself. And there, things look a lot less promising.

This is one reason many diplomats assume that the Soviets will eventually try to resume substantial grain purchases from the United States.

Meanwhile the Soviets are thinking through a "food program." Nothing radical is contemplated. The changes, if implemented, would be done piecemeal, gradually shifting emphasis to those areas that need urgent attention. Family plots, for instance, are likely to receive more support and there will be pressures on farms to switch from wheat to more efficient feedgrains.

Some foreign experts here argue further that the Soviets can't possibly hope for a radical improvement in the domestic farm picture, in that they seem unwilling to tackle inherent structural problems in their economy.

But such statements, if very probably containing an element of truth, also seem to dodge a more relevant issue: attempts at a less ambitious repair job on Soviet agriculture.

Diplomats are fond of pointing out that the tiny percentage of Soviet farmland cultivated as family plots, outside the large state or cooperative complexes, manages to produce a major chunk of the country's agricultural output. The presumed moral: Private enterprise works; state socialism doesn't.

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The Soviets accept the premise -- it is, after all, based on their own figures. The government has been moving to increase support for "private plots, " even announcing in mid- May a suspiciously capitalistic "incentive fund" to reward those who attained the "best possible" livestock production.

But only the most free-thinking, indeed heretical, of Soviet leaders might be expected to accept the moral, and to brook any wholesale change of priorities away from the "collectivization" achieved at gunpoint by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s.

The present aging Soviet leadership, at least, appears to have no such intention. Some Soviet experts add privately that such a switchover probably wouldn't work anyway, that there is no indication that intensive, family cultivation of small pieces of land has much relevance to the task of handling the enormous remaining acreage.

Still, some of the ideas being put forward make good sense and could conceivably yield a gradual, piecemeal improvement.

Enough polysyllables.

Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev said as much in reviewing the economic picture before a Communist Party congress here in February. He reminded the delegates that the problems he was discussing affected real human beings, "millions upon millions" of them.

One woman in Moscow put it this way: "In some ways, our lives are much better than, say, the 1950s. . . . We have better clothes, more products. . . .

"But at least then we always could get plenty to eat."

Memory may favor the past. People are not starving here, at least as far as this correspondent can determine.They get along. For one thing, many eat a lot of bread; there is grain for that. But there is not enough high- quality feedgrain to keep cattle well fed, to keep meat and milk on store shelves.

This is true even in Moscow. The situation is worse in many other areas. On arrival in Soviet Armenia recently, this correspondent picked up the local communist newspaper to find the headline: "Fish is meat, too." Meat, indeed, was in short supply.

A recent visitor to Estonia found that food supply in the capital city of Tallinn had worsened radically in recent weeks. A major hotel restaurant was temporarily closed. "We don't have enough food," he was told. So he went to a nearby fish restaurant, decorated with nets but almost empty of catch.

The presumption among foreign analysts is that the reported fishlessness of the Tallinn fish restaurant, unusual there, might have occurred because supplies were shipped out to cope with food shortages elsewhere in the country.

Senior Soviet officials, interviewed by the Monitor, acknowledge problems, particularly in the supply of meat and dairy products. They also think that the "food program" could help.

Although details on the program are sparse, the officials said it now seemed likely to be announced formally sometime this fall, consonant with approval of the current five- year economic plan.

The officials said some parts of the program were, meanwhile, being implemented piecemeal. The strong implication, not surprisingly, was that no major overhaul of the Soviets' economic machine was contemplated, but instead on incremental shift of emphasis to areas that needed urgent attention.

These, the officials suggested, included giving more support to family plots, encouraging some small-scale farming on the edge of nonagricultural enterprises, seeking to untangle habitual transport bottlenecks and improve food distribution and, perhaps most importantly, to get farms to switch from wheat to more efficient feedgrains like soy and barley.

The officials said there were no plans to create a new government ministry to deal with all this, perhaps a good sign for an economy that has often seemed better at creating government ministries than at increasing efficiency.

Official figures, so far, show mixed returns at best and, of course, no radical turnaround in agriculture.

The good news: This year's grain crop is expected to be better than the last two (disastrous) ones, at least in large part because of generally better weather. There has also been a reported increase in planting of fodder crops. Meat production was up from last year for the first five months of the year.

The bad news: Most foreign experts say the grain crop will still fall below official target, and a senior Soviet economist acknowledges privately that the target itself is well below what the country should be producing.

The meat figure, if above last year's, was only one-half of 1 percent higher. Slaughter weight per animal was slightly down, indicating continued fodder problems.

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