A nation is what it eats — and produces. A good way for a nation to fail is to have a failed food, farm and agricultural system.

Nations fail without a healthy food economy

Larry Waterfield

A good system includes production, a healthy supply at reasonable prices, excellent distribution, a wide variety of choices, market signals about quality and price, and robust imports and exports. Add to this a broad number of producers, marketers and retailers, along with independent quality and safety monitoring, and the system thrives.

The U.S. and Canada rate highly in all these categories. The U.S. now spends less than 7% of income on food consumed at home — the lowest in the world.

What brought all this to mind is a new book by a Russian woman about life in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond.  It’s called “A Mountain of Crumbs.”

A lot of  the book is about food, and the lack of it. Yes, Russia, or the Soviet Union, was a superpower, with thousands of rockets and nuclear weapons, and a land mass larger than the U.S., Canada and Mexico combined. Yet it could not feed itself and its 300 million people. It had to buy food from the U.S. and elsewhere, and shortages were a way of life.

The author relates stories about foraging for wild mushrooms to supplement the diet, about eagerly canning fruit so the family would have some for the winter months.  She recalls reading about “asparagus in France,” and wondering what it was. The idea of a pineapple seemed wildly exotic. The title comes from the practice of a family member who crumbled bread into a “mountain of crumbs” to give the impression of abundance.

She recounts jokes from the era: A woman goes into a produce store and asks, “Do you have meat?” “This is the produce store where we have no produce,” replies the clerk.  “The meat store is across the street. That’s where they have no meat.”

While writing this column in this period I sometimes wrote about food in the Soviet Union. I stumbled onto an obscure U.S. technical agency that translated documents, broadcasts and other internal information gleaned from the Soviet Union. This included some complaints and “confessions” of incompetence by state bureaucrats. It was a closed society, but some conflicts leaked out.

These were fascinating. Apparently, there were complaints that trainloads of fresh fruits and vegetables were really phantom trains full of phantom produce from state-run farms.

Everyone seemed to cook the books. State-run farms lied about produce production, the potato or cabbage crop or borscht supplies. The railroads lied about the actual shipments.  

Maybe the train arrived too late and the supply was ruined. Maybe it was rotten when loaded. Maybe there was no train.

In Moscow, the central planning bean counters marked down all the train loads, all the tons of production, all the satisfied quota demands. Much of it was a sham, a series of lies and exaggerations.  

In the cities, such as Leningrad, people were lining up to buy the meager supplies that belied the phony statistics.

Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the 1980s. He tried to reform the system. He had once been in charge of agriculture.

He knew they needed a market mechanism, price signals, a way to ensure quality and decision-making on farms and not in far-off government offices.

In 1987 I was invited to the Soviet/Russian embassy for a reception for Viktor Nikonov, member of the ruling Politburo and head of Soviet agriculture. I was invited because I was one of a handful of journalists covering agriculture.

That night at the reception a Soviet official carefully questioned me about my beliefs, attitudes toward the Cold War, the Soviet Union, U.S. policies. I was coy, and gave him the answers I thought he wanted: the Cold War was crazy, no system is perfect, we all should get along.

If I had spoken candidly, I would have said, “Hey, you’re shipping trainloads of spoiled produce, you can’t feed yourself, and all your statistics are damned lies. Time to give up.”

Four years later in 1991 they did give up. The Soviet Union collapsed because running a vast nation from a far-off capital didn’t work.

And while Russia is no paradise, I understand you can now buy asparagus and pineapples in St. Petersburg.

E-mail lww4@verizon.net

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