The United States government is preparing a major effort to prevent terrible famine in black Africa. Unless sufficient food arrives in time, the famine could be ''a massive one, '' warned a State Department official Tuesday. ''It could be worse than 1974.''
A decade ago, drought and bad crop failures resulted in the death by starvation of more than 1 million people, according to some estimates. Millions more suffered from serious malnutrition.
Drought again has struck Africa and the Reagan administration has formed an inter-agency task force to coordinate plans for food relief.
At a press conference in Washington yesterday, M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the Agency for International Development and coordinator for foreign disaster relief, announced that 158,756 metric tons of food worth some $ 52 million has already been committed for delivery in the fiscal year that started at the beginning of this month.
Much more will be needed, it is expected. Indeed, a State Department official spoke of a food shortfall of ''millions of tons.''
The countries most seriously hit by the drought are Niger, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Mozambique. Also ''serious'' are conditions in Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Somalia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, and Angola.
Disaster, it is feared, could already be occurring in Ethiopia.
It was a famine there 10 years ago that was partially responsible for the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. For a time, a State Department official noted, the current regime in Ethiopia made the same mistake Selassie had: covering up the famine. But now, to a limited extent, it admits the problem.
The Soviet ''sponsors'' of the Ethiopian regime, which has just declared itself to be communist, ''won't give them a penny'' in the way of food relief, noted the official.
AID administrator McPherson stated: ''We have no greater challenge than ensuring the United States continues to provide food and other emergency assistance to sub-Saharan Africa.''
In fiscal year 1984, which just ended, the US provided 505,000 metric tons to Africa worth $173 million, the largest amount of emergency food aid ever provided that continent.
With probably more food needed this year, the major problem will be transportation - getting food through clogged ports and along inadequate roads many hundreds of miles to remote areas, experts say.
Over the long term, the goal of American aid to Africa is to increase the self-sufficiency in food production of African nations so they can better withstand years of drought.
Agricultural production has been decreasing in Africa for the last 14 years. ''This is basically because of lousy policies,'' noted an official.
Often farmers have been inadequately paid for their products under state price controls, thus discouraging output.