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The Bread Scare: Cold War Food Policy and the 1972 Soviet-American Grain Deal

Sat, April 2, 3:00 to 4:30pm, Westin Seattle Hotel, Vashon


The 1972 Moscow Summit meeting between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev marked an important shift in the foreign policy of the Cold War, as the United States and the Soviet Union strove to achieve d├ętente. Of all of the agreements concluded in Moscow, none was more important than the one laying out terms for a massive sale of US grain to the Soviet Union. Officially, the grain sale was a sign of the new spirit of cooperation that allowed old enemies to be better trading partners, but US leaders also believed that it granted them leverage over Soviet behavior.
Largely unexamined are the environmental implications of the grain agreement. After years of US-Soviet competition in developing nations to sell environmental assumptions in general, and modernization schemes in particular, the US scored a major PR victory by selling a quarter of its grain crop to the Soviets. Yet American negotiators recognized that the sale was something that they wanted more than their Soviet counterparts because agricultural subsidies had created massive crop surpluses, which would be only encouraged further by the prospect of greater sales. In the USSR, the grain made up shortfalls caused in part by a government effort to produce more meat for consumers, even as it reflected the startling failure of Soviet agriculture to feed the nation.
This paper will use US government records and media coverage to examine the environmental underpinnings and implications of the US-Soviet grain deal as part of my larger environmental history of the Cold War.