RESPONDING to problems caused by a seven-year drought and continuing political upheaval in Africa, the United States House of Representatives and the Senate have approved emergency relief legislation. This is the latest chapter in America's attempt to help resolve the world food crisis. But the US could, if it wished, write another more significant chapter.
With over 500 million people hungry, the US, for humanitarian as well as economic and strategic reasons, has become the leading donor of food to the world's needy. That need is staggering. According to the State Department, the US last year sent abroad more than 5.8 million metric tons of food, largely in the form of Food for Peace grain. Supplementing this is a new bilateral effort that directs surplus US dairy products overseas, and the UN's World Food Program , a multilateral venture whose largest contributor is the US.
It is therefore curious that as the US developed its foreign assistance program in the years since World War II it devoted so few resources to the role fishing can play in alleviating hunger and malnourishment. Relative to the attention US aid experts give to agriculture, fishing has virtually been ignored.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the US gave vessels, gear, harbors, processing equipment, and technical assistance to many developing nations. Yet despite a record of accomplishment in assistance to the fishing sector, the 1960s brought a shift away from comprehensive US fisheries programs to ad hoc fisheries efforts related to agricultural projects. The change was bad both for the US and future recipients of its fisheries assistance; one result was that most of our own expertise was lost.
Today, with food needs and the limitations of traditional agriculture increasingly apparent, developing nations are determined to exploit more fully and cost-effectively their protein-rich coastal waters. With this has come a desire for access to the modern technology that can transform local fishing operations into substantial industries able to satisfy national food requirements.
The US, which ranks fourth in the list of major fishing nations, has the expertise these nations seek. But the existence of American expertise is not enough. Unless a commitment is made at a high level to channel this expertise overseas in ways beneficial to both recipient and donor, the US will lose by default a tremendous opportunity to continue the American tradition of humanitarianism, to augment goodwill, and to enhance US security in the bargain.
The Soviet Union has similar considerations in mind. For a decade it has been responding to requests for fisheries aid from West African states. There, the USSR has entered into multifaceted bilateral fisheries pacts which reflect the seriousness of the Soviet program. They provide for research, stock assessments, port access, maintenance and refueling support, joint ventures, and in several instances Aeroflot landing rights in the host country.
The recipients of Soviet assistance are not naive. They know that the Soviet fishing fleet has an important intelligence-gathering function and that by accepting Soviet fishing vessels into their ports they invite calls as well from the Soviet Navy. Yet so anxious are they to gain access to technical assistance and modern equipment that they are willing to take substantial risks and tolerate an often disappointing Soviet aid program.
What is the US doing meanwhile? In February, before the World Affairs Council of Boston, Secretary of State George Shultz said, ''One of Africa's greatest resources - the bounty of the seas which ring the continent - has up to now been inadequately exploited. We plan to help some West African countries create and improve their fisheries management program.''
This modest new program offers the US an opportunity to regain lost development assistance skills and a chance to shape a new dimension for help to the third world. President Kennedy doubtless was right in predicting that the people of Africa are ''more interested in development than in doctrine . . . more interested in achieving a decent standard of living than in following the standards of East or West.''
What better way to win the confidence of developing nations than to identify with one of the most basic national aspirations: to feed one's own people.