Food: Potent U.S. Weapon

Interview with Earl L. Butz, Secretary of Agriculture

U.S. News & World Report, February 19, 1976

Summary by Michelle Lai



This is a summary of the interview with Earl L. Butz and his response to the U.S. withholding food from Russia and an explanation of how the U.S. as an “agripower” is able to impact foreign policy, farm prices, and consumption.

“Agripower”, as defined by Mr. Butz, is the dependence of an increasing world population on an uninterrupted supply of U.S. food. With respect to Russia, while there have been pressures to reduce American exports of grain to Russia to perhaps induce their cooperation in Angola, President Ford has however rejected this idea and American grain exports to Russia have resumed. However, the agreement for Russians to provide oil to the U.S. is still in negotiations, and in its success would result in American grain exports equaling the value of Russian oil exports.

In response to using “agripower” to negotiate a peace settlement in the Middle East, Mr. Butz reaffirmed the fact that the suspension of grain exports to Russia, allowed for the Egyptian – Israeli Sinai negotiations to run smoothly without interference from Russia. When asked if food is being used as a weapon similar to the Arabs using oil as a weapon, Mr. Butz asserts that while the oil embargo on the U.S. and Europe had the purpose of reducing support of Israel, retaliation by the U.S., by restricting food supply, would not be effective since the Arabs could find food elsewhere.

Since “agripower” comes from having large surpluses of food and American farmers are often encouraged to produce at full capacity, it would be unfair to meddle with export markets in foreign policy. He reiterates that the best positive way that “agripower” should be used is to “encourage countries to extend their lifelines into this country” since all “they want is guaranteed access to our markets.” Mr. Butz replied, “We are using food to win friends,” when asked whether he thinks the American public would support the use of food as a weapon. Preventing starvation has been a clear commitment of the U.S. but food will certainly not be sent to an enemy.

With the increase of grain sales to the Russians, prices of domestic grain will rise, but will not surpass the level of the general price. When asked if exports from other countries could pose a threat in U.S. farm markets, Mr. Butz replied that even though capital flows to where higher profits could be made, as a result of high commodity prices, America is rich with large areas of fertile soil, a favorable climate, and technology unsurpassed anywhere else. In response to charges that the Secretary of Agriculture and the President deliberately chose a “cheap food policy” to benefit consumers, Mr. Butz replied that such a policy would cut back production and consequently raise prices again, and he thus believes that President Ford will not pursue such a policy. To rebut union leaders who say that the minimum wage should be increased since cost of food is rising, Mr. Butz retorts that price increases were a result of higher wages paid to union workers and restrictions that were placed on productivity.