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Soviet farming: more success than failure?

Popular magazines and newspapers which ever since 1917 have attempted to prove that the Soviet economic system is a failure have in recent years focused their criticism on the Soviet Union's agricultural sector. Because of inclement weather, the 1979 and 1980 Soviet grain harvests of 179 million and 189 million metric tons respectively were well below plan targets and also well below the 1976-1978 average of 218 million tons; and last year's grain crop is estimated in the 165 million to 175 million ton range.

Yet, at the risk of playing the devil's advocate, I will argue that this cannot be construed as a ''failure'' and that with all its obvious and frankly acknowledged shortcomings, Soviet agricultural performance over the years has been much more respectable than usually given credit for by US analysts.

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To begin with, there is no longer any possibility of denying that the Soviet Union, in a historically very short period of time, has converted a country of ignorant, illiterate peasants into a nation of scientists, engineers, doctors, and artists which, in total output and military capabilities, is second only to the United States. But would such an accomplishment not have been totally impossible without the underpinnings of a reasonably successful agricultural sector?

A grain output of 175 million or 180 million tons is not quite what the Soviets are hoping for, but to call it a disaster or a failure is totally misleading. In the ''good old days'' of the pre-Soviet era, from 1909 to 1913, Russia, with about half of the current Soviet population, produced an average of only 65 million tons of grain per year; during the five-year period 1951-55, the Soviet Union averaged 88.5 million tons annually; 1966-70, 167.6 million tons.

Although last year's goal of over 200 million tons was not reached, how on earth can 175 million to 180 million be called a failure? And these production figures grossly understate the annual grain supply available to the Soviet people, because during the pre-Soviet era, when the Ukraine was the ''breadbasket of Europe,'' the czarist regimes exported over one-third of their meager grain crops from the famine-stricken countryside, while today the Soviets import grain to supplement their own output.

But if this is so, why do they need foreign grain at all? Soviet scholars know the answer: the Soviet leadership has long engaged in a supreme, and by no means unsuccessful, attempt to improve the diet of the citizenry; and it takes between 7.5 and 14 pounds of grain to get one pound of meat. It's as simple as that. Any look at statistics will show that grain used for livestock feed more than doubled between 1960 and 1973 (the year the Soviet Union first imported very substantial amounts of grain) and in that year this feed grain accounted for more than four times the 24.5 million tons of grain imported.

Although neither the Soviet citizenry nor indeed the Soviet leadership are satisfied with the current Soviet diet, it is surely undeniable that they have made very considerable progress, from 3.9 million tons of meat in 1909-1913 to 7 .9 million tons in 1956-60 and 15.1 million tons in 1980; and Soviet per capita consumption of meat exceeds today that of many countries of the ''free world'' such as Norway, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Japan, and Israel.

Milk production is even more impressive, having increased from 12.1 million tons in 1909-1913 to 57.2 million tons in 1956-60 and 91 million tons in 1980; and the Soviet Union is today by far the largest milk-producing country in the world. The output of eggs has increased more than sixfold since the pre-Soviet era, the output of cotton more than twelvefold, and other agricultural products in similar proportions. And all this was achieved with a continuous decrease in the percentage of the labor force engaged in agriculture, from 76 percent in the pre-Soviet era to 42 percent in 1960, and around 20 percent today.

How all this adds up to an abysmal failure is hard to understand for anyone interested not in desperately trying to show how badly they are doing, but rather in portraying a reasonably objective and accurate picture.

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The US imports annually substantial quantities of meat and dairy products; tens of thousands of US farmers don't fulfill their annual plans and go out of business each year; peach growers in Georgia and Illinois registered surely unplanned losses of between 50 and 80 percent of their peach crops in 1973; and California citrus fruit growers were plagued last year with extremely high losses of their orange crops.

Are these evidence of the failure of capitalist agriculture in the US? Western Europe imports annually much more grain than does the Soviet Union and economists laud this, explaining it to their students as clear evidence of the proper application and functioning of ''comparative advantage.''

Isn't it time we begin putting things in better perspective?