POLAND'S MILITARY government announces that it will welcome the new year with reductions in the meat and butter rations. That decision has deep and ominous implications, in a country whose recent history can be written in terms of its food supply.
The availability of food of high quality, especially meat, has acquired enormous significance in Poland as the crucial indicator of the standard of living, national well-being, and progress in general. The point is made in a useful study of Eastern European agriculture by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which adds: "One reason for this is the shortage of alternative consumer goods and services like housing, tourism, motor cars and other consumer durables." Another reason is the sharp and rather recent memory of starvation on a scale that the United States, fortunately, has never experienced. Still another reason is the pervasive suspicion that the government plays with the food supply for its own political purposes. To most Poles, the food in the stores and on the table is the single most reliable indicator not only of the government's intentions, but of its basic competence.
The 1970 uprising against the government began with an increase in food prices. Thereafter, for several years, food production and consumption rose extraordinarily rapidly. The episode seems to demonstrate, to many Poles, that if you kicked the machine it would run faster. But then the rise stopped, in the middle 1970s. There was another popular rebellion in 1976, but that time nothing improved. The government had got itself into a genuinely ugly dilemma. It had let food prices get too low, in its efforts to placate its people, and it was trying to increase production by socializing more farms. Socialization was, as usual, having the opposite effect. The government had begun to run intolerable deficits, buying food and feed from the West. Finally, in the summer of 1980, a desperate government tried to raise the price of meat. The resulting explosion made Solidarity a major force in the country. Now, a year and a half later, having suppressed Solidarity by force, the military government is going to try to cut the consumption of meat the other way, by shortening the ration.
Farmers with more than the tiniest holdings will get no ration at all. The government's intention is apparently to suggest to the cities that the whole disaster is to be blamed on farmers' hoarding. Two- thirds of Poland's agricultural land remains in the hands of private farmers, who are now being set up again in the familiar role of enemies of the people. The effect of this tactic is likely to be more hoarding, both on the farm and in the city, followed by further declines in farm production.
Within the past two weeks, the military government has greatly strengthened public suspicions that the food supply is being manipulated for political purposes. Throughout the autumn, as lines at the grocery stores got longer, there was a lot of muttering that the regime was deliberately withholding supplies in the hope that people would blame Solidarity and turn against it. Immediately after the declaration of martial law, the government flooded the stores with delicacies that had not been seen there for a long time. With that gesture, it retroactively confirmed the earlier charges. That episode will make it difficult, when sausage gets scarcer than ever next month, to persuade Polish working people that it's the farmers who are responsible, and not the generals.