The ‘Great Grain Robbery’ of 1972

Rachel Chenven PowersOriginal

Out of the unsettling agricultural and economic events of 1972, the beginnings of a robust agricultural monitoring program were born.

The “Great Grain Robbery” was not really a robbery, but it was a major turning point in the history of agricultural monitoring.

In 1972, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R were deep in the middle of the Cold War, but that did not stop the daily business of trade among nations. In fact, given the dicey agricultural policies and poor weather of the Soviet breadbasket, crop failure was not unusual. Soviet agricultural trade representatives often turned to the foreign commodity markets to make up the difference.

In July of 1972, the Russians began buying up foreign wheat, purchasing 10 million tons from U.S. brokers by August. Richard E. Mooney’s economic analysis in a 1975 issue of The New York Times states that despite receiving reports of crop failures in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, the U.S. government failed to appreciate the significance of the global grain shortage and the effect it might have on the U.S. economy. As federal grain subsidies continued to favor bargains for the Soviets buying American wheat, the price of domestic grain rose sharply, causing a food price crisis back home. According to John A. Schnittker in a 1973 paper for the Brookings Institution, the U.S. government wasted $300 million in public funds and lost the same amount in potential revenue by unwittingly subsidizing the Russian wheat purchases.

As it turned out, the shortage in Russia was part of a worldwide shortage in grain production that almost wiped out international stockpiles. Clifton Luttrell wrote in the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review in 1973 that the U.S. government did not recognize this as it was happening because the government did not have a big-picture view of agricultural output worldwide.

At that point, sophisticated agricultural monitoring was only in its infancy. According to Gary Weir of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, despite using satellites to photograph grain-growing areas, the resolution was not clear enough to reveal much information on the health of crops, leaving the probable outcomes of Russian harvests opaque to U.S. intelligence. Afterwards, the debacle was nicknamed the “Great Grain Robbery.” To prevent another such calamity, U.S. intelligence began looking at earlier technological research.

In an article in Earth Imaging Journal, Weir describes how research done in the 1960s on non-photographic sensors had led to the development of radar technology as well as recognition of the usefulness of shorter infrared wavelengths. Camouflage experts studied infrared because that portion of the light spectrum reflects from plants; this same quality made infrared a potentially useful tool in discerning the health and condition of crops.

At the same time, scientists at NASA had just launched Landsat 1 with the aim of contributing to the better management of the Earth’s resources. NASA teamed up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop crop production forecasts through satellite monitoring. Out of the unsettling agricultural and economic events of 1972, the beginnings of a robust agricultural monitoring program were born.

Cover image: A political cartoon on the eve of the first United Nations Conference on Food and Agriculture emphasized the size of the task before the world. Image Credit: WW2 Cartoons

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