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For most of humanity the third quarter of the century was a period of unprecedented prosperity. The world's output of goods and services, expanding 4 per cent or more annually, tripled in less than a generation. Growth seemed commonplace—and was soon built into consumer aspirations, corporate earnings projections, and government revenue expectations. Few stopped to calculate that if the 4 per cent rate of economic growth remained steady, there would be a fiftyfold expansion in just a century. And even fewer considered the pressure this would put on the earth's resources.
Each day two 20,000-ton freighters loaded with grain leave the United States for the Soviet Union. This flow of grain between two major adversaries is influenced by economic considerations such as the size of the Soviet grain deficit, the U.S. capacity to supply, and the Soviet ability to pay. Political considerations include the risk to both trading partners of such a heavy interdependence, whether as supplier or market.
Never before has a country dominated the world grain trade as the United States does today. Its 55 per cent share of world grain exports in 1981 easily overshadows Saudi Arabia's 24 per cent share of world oil exports in 1978. And while the amount of oil traded internationally has been falling since 1979, grain shipments are continuing to grow.
Analyses of the U.S.-Soviet balance of power usually focus on relative military strength—the number of tanks, planes, nuclear warheads, and other items in the so-called strategic balance. But many other factors determine a country's overall power and influence. Among the most basic is a country's capacity to feed its people. By this measure the Soviet Union appears to be in deep trouble.
This year the USSR will try to import 46 million tons of grain, more than any country in history (source, here and elsewhere: U.S. Department of Agriculture). Nearly a fourth of all Soviet grain for feeding both people and livestock will come from the North American breadbasket, most of it from the United States.