Will the Green Revolution come to the Soviet Union, eventually wiping out grain sales there by the United States and other producers and sharply decreasing bulk cargo tonnage for shipping firms?
Sir John Harvey-Jones, chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries PLC, a major British chemical concern, believes this could happen in the next five to 10 years. India, he notes, reached self-sufficiency in agriculture in about six years after the start of its Green Revolution.What prompts his optimism for Soviet farm output are the farm management experiments his firm has been conducting in the Soviet Union for two years. ICI experts advise the Soviets who run four large farms in widely different locations. They visit the farms once a month, tell the farmers what inputs to use in the way of seed, fertilizer, insecticides and so on.
The result has been a doubling of output, Sir John says. In Hungary and Bulgaria, where ICI has held the same advisory role at several farms for more than four years, output has risen five to 10 times.
To the Soviets, the new farm management techniques offer a way of dealing with their farm problem: stagnant, insufficient production. To Sir John, this is an elaborate way of selling fertilizers and other chemicals.
Sir John suspects that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev will embrace these agricultural ad vances. If so, it will add to the economic problems of farmers in the great central plains of the United States and Canada.
Already, through the introduction of a system of rewards for their work, China's peasants produce sufficient food to export a little. Through subsidies, the European Community also exports farm products. India and Pakistan are basically self-sufficient in food.
But because of the Soviet Union's economic record, Sir John's expectations for farm output in that country prompt considerable skepticism.
Washington farm economist John A. Schnittker, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official, calls the Soviet Union a "tower of strength" for grain exporting nations. It imports around 30 million metric tons of grain in a good crop year, as much as 52 million metric tons in a bad year. (A metric ton is equivalent to 2,200 pounds.)
Says Robert Koopman, a specialist on Soviet agriculture in the U.S. Department of Agriculture: "I have not talked to any experts in the field who will predict the Soviets would be agriculturally self-sufficien t in five or six years."
However, Mr. Koopman does see a chance for the Soviets to start farm output growing again. He notes that Mr. Gorbachev has consolidated the nation's ministry of agriculture and the departments that supply the equipment, fertilizers and other farm inputs into one super agro-in dustrial agency - Gosagriprom. That could be helpful. In addition, once Soviet farms have met their quotas at fixed prices, they will be allowed to sell the remainder of their crop anywhere they can at whatever price they can get. This could strengthen weak financial incentives for Soviet farmers.
"These are the kind of changes that can improve Soviet agricultural productivity," notes Mr. Koopman. "But they will not turn Soviet agriculture into a rip-roaring industry."
Soviet farm output also suffers from inadequate transportation and storage facilities, poor coordinations and cooperation between the suppliers of farm equipment or other "inputs" and the producers themselves. There is some suspicion that soil fertility is declining. Further, more than 80 percent of Soviet grain output comes from farms in areas climatically equivalent to the area north of Minneapolis, where weather makes farming more risky and difficult.
A generation ago, Communist Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev boasted: ''Soviet superiority in the rate of production increase will create a real basis for overtaking and surpassing the present U.S. per capita output within approximately five years after 1965. Thus, by that time and perhaps sooner the Soviet Union will attain first place in the world in both gross output and per capita output, giving the population the world's highest living standard."
That prophesy, as former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Arthur F. Burns notes, has proven "wild fantasy." Rather, the United States has increased its economic lead over the Soviet Union significantly in the last 10 years.
Total production in the United States, which already in 1975 was 72 percent greater than in the U.S.S.R., became 88 percent greater last year, says Mr. Burns, now with the American Enterprise Institute.
On a per capita basis, the United States had about double the output of the Soviet Union in 1975. Five years later, the U.S. margin of superiority was about 115 percent, and last year it reached almost 120 percent.
Moreover, Mr. Burns adds, these figures understate the achievement gap
because of the inferior quality of products made in the U.S.S.R.
There are no signs yet of Soviet industry meeting Mr. Khrushchev's boast. And it may be the same for farming. But, as Mr. Schnittker says, "U.S. farmers live in fear of losing the Soviet market. Anything that is going on that would bring Soviet grain production up to their targets would be of great importance."
Already there has been a considerable change of attitude in the U.S. farming community. U.S. farmers still regard themselves, probably rightly, as among the most, if not the most, efficient and scientific farmers in the world. Until recent times, they were happy to share that farming know-how with the rest of the world. They regarded it as their contribution to avoiding world famine. Now many are more reluctant to pass on U.S. farming technology.