Linking crop failure and food availability in the country

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This subject is the most complicated to analyze since it concerns social and political rather than physical phenomena. When evaluating a crop failure as potentially dangerous for the country, one cannot know for certain whether it would inevitably develop into a large-scale food crisis. No simple or direct links between crop failure and food availability in local stores exist. The crop failure would first impact on the economic, social, and political factors of the country, then these changes would worsen the food situation in the country. Moreover, Soviet history shows that food crises, and even mass famine, could arise for political reasons rather than crop failure.

The agricultural sector played a decisive role in the Soviet economy, employing about one-third of the labor force, absorbing over one-quarter of total investment, and generating roughly one-sixth of the GNP in the 1970s. The result was that the gross national product of the Soviet Union depended heavily on fluctuations in the agricultural sector of the Soviet economy. By way of comparison, agricultural production in the USA provided only 4 percent of GNP while accounting for about 15 percent of Soviet GNP. Thus, when the USSR experienced a severe drop in farm production, it had a far more profound effect on the country's GNP than would a similar agricultural decline on the GNP of the USA.

Researchers can also find in the history of the USSR much material for speculation on the influence of crop failures on key political changes in the country. The revolution of February 1917 began in the bread queues of Petrograd (then St. Petersburg). Two out of the four major political crises within the Communist Party in the 1920s were directly provoked by the failure of the state grain-procurement program (Kochet-kov, 2000). It has been argued that the large amounts of grain ordered from Western suppliers in the wake of the 1963 drought were a major factor in the downfall and resignation of Khrushchev (Bush, 1974). Finally, in order to cope with the food shortages caused by two consecutive years of drought, between 1979 and 1981, the relatively young agricultural expert Mikhail Gorbachev, at the age of 49, was appointed a full member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

However, the major social consequences of the droughts were the numerous food crises experienced by the USSR in the twentieth century. When analyzing the food problems of Russia over the last hundred years, two major periods may be distinguished. In the first half of the century the level of food consumption was below the physiological minimum (2,400 kcal per capita per day). Bread was the major component of a Russian's diet. The proportion of bread reached 55 to 60 percent of the daily calorific intake, while meat made up only 5 percent. In poor years, productive (steppe and forest-steppe) regions found themselves in a better position than consumption (forest) regions. In the post-revolutionary decades Russia was still an agrarian country, with 82 percent of the population living in rural areas. The majority of the population was directly dependent on the cereal crops produced on small plots of land. Mass famine was reported in the 1920s and 1930s in regions affected by drought. The Soviet authorities carried out a devastating policy, expropriating from collective farms and individual farmers as much grain and meat as the state needed at that moment. As a result, the regions that suffered most were the productive regions of Soviet Russia while cities and non-productive regions were supplied with food by the state. Thus the history of famine in the 1920s and 1930s supports the idea that "Droughts are a natural phenomenon; famines are not" (Desai, 1989). The last mass famine in the Soviet Union occurred in 1946 when severe drought affected a larger part of the productive zone of the country.

The year 1950 seems to be a watershed between a period of the risk of absolute food shortage and one of the risk of relative food shortage. During the 1950s, the urban population became dominant in the Soviet Union. The majority of the population depended on the total harvest in the country rather than on the crop in a particular region or district. The priorities of the domestic policy of the Soviet Union had changed. The state was determined to raise the level of food consumption of the population, and this became an important target of the Five-Year Plans. The growth in agricultural (grain and meat) production already allowed the Soviet Union to reach a relatively high average level of food consumption by 1960. In 1970, the level of food consumption was at about the level of Western countries, although the structure of food consumption was still far from optimal. Although the dependence of agricultural production and the food supply on the weather was still strong, it is not easy to show how crop failure resulted in an interruption of the food supply in a given part of the country. The situation was often rather chaotic in terms of geography, and various commodities disappeared from Soviet shops.

Some experts argue that the permanent food deficit at that time was associated rather with the determination of the state to keep food prices unchanged while the cost of food production and the savings of the population increased considerably. According to USDA calculations, there was a strong correlation between GDP and levels of meat consumption in countries around the world, the only exception being Socialist countries, where a relatively high level of meat consumption did not correspond to economic development (Sedik, 2000). Thus the state heavily subsided food production and supply. Although many staple foods were in short supply in Soviet stores, the country avoided any risk of mass famine. The country did face problems in maintaining the same level of consumption in unfavorable years. The different variants of food rations implemented throughout the country are the main indicators of food shortages in these years. Official statistics for food consumption appear distorted. In the 1980s, food problems led to general disillusionment with Socialism because of the lowering food consumption of the Soviet people.

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