Evaluating the scale of crop failure

A scale of harvest decline of approximately 10 percent for a country would be no more than a normal statistical variation from an average harvest, but in certain circumstances the same drop of 10 percent could bring many problems. This potential impact of crop failure on the food situation in a country depends on the balance between agricultural production and domestic requirements. We suggest that if grain production too closely follows demand, the vulnerability of a country to crop failure (caused by, for example, weather anomaly) could be high.

During the last century there were remarkable changes in both grain production and grain requirement in Russia. Before World War II, during the period of collectivization, grain harvests were low. Only after the late 1950s could considerable progress in grain production be observed. This was achieved as a result of two different agricultural policy programs implemented in the Soviet Union. Between 1955 and 1965, a remarkable expansion in crop area in the USSR took place through the so-called virgin land campaign inspired by the then party leader Nikita Khrushchev. In the course of this campaign the total crop area of the USSR increased by 42 million hectares (or 23 percent), mostly at the expense of pasture and grasslands in Kazakhstan and Western Siberia. Such an enormous expansion in arable land over three years is unique in modern world history. As a result of the campaign, the gross cereal production increased, although yields remained unsatisfactorily low.

After the mid-1960s, the emphasis was placed on the intensification of cereal production. From 1900 to 1950, average cereal yields reached only 0.6 to 0.8 tons per hectare. Nor was there any further increase in the early 1960s. Then, starting from 1965, a considerable growth in cereal production can be observed. During that decade (1965 to 1975) the average yield in cereals increased from 1 to 1.5 tons per hectare, that is, by 50 percent. This progress was mainly due to the large-scale application of mineral fertilizers in Soviet agriculture during the period. After 1980, however, there was a stagnation in cereal productivity in Russia, although state investment in agriculture continued to grow.

The grain requirements of the country also changed significantly in the second half of the twentieth century, determined mainly by changes in Soviet animal stocks. The weakness of the livestock sector was traditional in Russia and was evidently connected to adverse climate conditions. Firstly, the Russian peasants suffered because cattle were kept for long periods in stalls, so large amounts of feed had to be stored from the relatively short harvest period. In the heartland of Russia the stall period lasted from 180 to 200 days, while in continental Europe the stall regime was half as long—from 90 to 105 days. In some parts of Europe a milder climate allowed the herd to graze outside all year round at the same latitude as the steppe regions of Russia, where cattle had to be kept indoors for as much as six months. In Virginia, in the United States, for example, cattle do not have to spend any time in stalls at all, and although this is not the case further north in the USA, the period is still much shorter than in Russia. Thus the traditional investment in buildings and fodder required in Russia was a significant burden. The logical consequence was to reduce the relative size of livestock herds, and hence the scale of this important buffer against food-crop fluctuations (White, 1987).

Another problem was that the pastureland and hayfields of the country were in very poor condition and needed large-scale and expensive rehabilitation. The duration of the growing period plays a very important role in the productivity of grasslands. In the Northern and Central regions, where the main pastures and hayfields (in large river valleys) are located, the growing period lasts from 110 to 130 days, which is short in comparison with the growing season in western Europe. In the "productive" regions of Russia, the prospects for raising livestock were not much better. The expansion of cereal crops during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries resulted in a dramatic reduction in pasture and hayfield areas. Moreover, the drier climate of the steppe zone causes lower yields from natural grassland compared with the humid forest zone.

In late 1957, the Soviet authorities launched a first ambitious livestock breeding program, but it had little effect. At the end of the 1960s, a second livestock program, emphasizing the modernization and industrialization of the sector, was launched, radically changing feed-grain requirements.

The imbalance in the livestock and grain sectors became an intrinsic feature of Soviet agriculture. This made the country potentially very vulnerable to crop failure. In order to measure this vulnerability we have provided our own estimates of this imbalance for different periods of Soviet history.

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