April 14, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 16

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    Five decades of studying world food production

    In his 50 years as a University faculty member, agricultural economist D. Gale Johnson has witnessed and researched the changes and challenges of food production throughout the developed and developing world. Johnson, the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Economics, has studied price policies for agriculture in the United States, collective farms in the Soviet Union and efforts at agricultural reform elsewhere.

    His colleagues acknowledge that his work has broadened and brought new insights to the field of agricultural economics. At a recent luncheon in honor of Johnson, Yair Mundlak, the Frederick Henry Prince Professor in Economics, praised him for strengthening a discipline that previously had been dominated by such subjects as farm management and marketing.

    In the past half-century, Johnson has witnessed many changes in the world of agriculture, including some convergence in world eating habits. On the bulletin board above his desk are two tray liners from McDonald's restaurants -- one is printed in Russian, the other in Chinese.

    "I've eaten in both these restaurants. One is in Moscow and one in Beijing," he said. "Incidentally, they do a good job of producing food that tastes like the McDonald's food you would find in the United States."

    Although eating fast food in foreign lands may be part of his travels now, Johnson began researching Soviet agriculture long before McDonald's appeared in Moscow. He made his first trip to the Soviet Union to study its food production in 1955. In 1991, with three and a half decades of research behind him, he was selected to head an international World Bank team of 40 specialists to research Soviet food production. The team worked with about the same number of specialists from the U.S.S.R.

    At that time, world leaders were concerned that the country could be facing a famine, and the team worked with their Soviet counterparts to develop plans to improve the availability of food. After studying the data available in the Soviet Union as well as other information about the country's crops, Johnson's team determined that relief beyond the already-established commitments of aid and commercial food imports was not necessary.

    "A member of our delegation reported our findings to a meeting of G-7 ministers (from the seven major industrial nations) and convinced them against sending further emergency aid," Johnson said. "I think we prevented shipments of unneeded food, which would have driven prices down and reduced incentives for farmers to deliver their produce to market."

    Johnson's delegation also made suggestions to encourage a good harvest in 1992. "Things did turn out rather well that year, and they did many of the things we recommended -- but whether that was because of our report or for other reasons, we can't say," Johnson said.

    Overall, agriculture has been one of the most successful economic components of the post-Soviet Union era, according to Johnson. "Agriculture is still primarily organized in large farms, but since 1990 the system has been changed so that the members of the cooperatives have an incentive to produce more," he said. "Previously, all the peasants were paid essentially the same thing, no matter how well their farms did.

    "In addition to farmers being rewarded financially when their cooperative farms perform well, the agricultural sector has succeeded because people have shown they can make do with what they have," he said. "They use about half the fertilizer they did before 1990, but they produce about the same amount of food. Perhaps they were using too much fertilizer before."

    Johnson had another opportunity to view agriculture in a former communist country in 1989, when he was part of a mission to Poland organized by President Bush. The presidential commission included cabinet members and academics who examined the economic plans of the country as it made the transition from communism to democracy.

    Although the commission was not intended to provide advice, it did give Johnson a chance to study Polish agriculture.

    "We know that Polish agriculture has been successful because food is plentiful," Johnson said. "However, the country has not had the same history of collectivization as Russia, as most farms remained in private hands after the communists came to power. Poland also went through what is usually called 'shock therapy' relatively early in the process of transition to a market economy." That shock therapy included lifting price controls so that goods were priced closer to their true value.

    Throughout his career, Johnson has been intrigued by the ways in which governments manipulate prices, particularly for agricultural products. These manipulations contradict Johnson's recommendation that agricultural production be as efficient as possible.

    Although he is a proponent of limiting governmental intervention in markets, Johnson has long argued that there are many important, but often neglected, functions governments must undertake if markets are to operate properly. These include supporting research, providing education in rural areas equal to that in urban areas and investing adequately in rural infrastructure, such as roads and communication, to integrate rural and urban life. Governmental intervention in agricultural markets results in substantial costs to consumers and taxpayers with little or no benefit to most farmers. The economic benefits go almost entirely to the owners of land, Johnson said.

    Despite his advice, which reflects a viewpoint now shared by many other economists, governments have consistently sought to preserve the agricultural status quo. Concessions opening markets to more trade and other moves to liberalize agriculture have been weak, but some progress has been made, Johnson said.

    "I've been singing the same tune for nearly 50 years, just adding a few more choruses," he said. "The major country where there has been significant change is China, and there the results have been dramatic."

    Since his first trip to China in 1980, Johnson has visited the country many times.

    "Between 1981 and 1983, the Chinese abolished collective farms, and production soared," Johnson said. Although farmers were expected to meet some state production requirements, they were free to plant crops of their own choosing on land provided by the government.

    Johnson continues to travel extensively and speak at international conferences on the topic of food production. This fall he intends to visit Zimbabwe, where he will again carry forward his message that governments should refrain from over-regulating agriculture and should concentrate on those activities -- such as providing good schooling, building roads and supporting research -- that complement markets.

    "I think there will be changes eventually. It's inevitable. But it will take longer in the former communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe because privatization is tied up in questions about who owns the land. These issues need to be resolved," he said.

    Johnson, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, received his B.S. in economics in 1938 from Iowa State University. He received his M.S. in economics in 1939 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    After studying at the University of Chicago from 1939 to 1941, he returned to Iowa State, where he taught agricultural economics from 1941 to 1944 and received his Ph.D. in 1945.

    Johnson joined the Chicago faculty as Research Associate in 1944. He became Assistant Professor in 1946, Associate Professor in 1949 and Professor in 1954. He was named the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor in 1973.

    -- William Harms