Chris Righton, a prosperous wheat farmer in England's central cereal belt, doesn't much like it, but some people think of him as a bogeyman taking food from the table of his American farmer friends.

Righton is a bit player in the drama of growing tension between the United States and the 10-member European Economic Community.

Most of the sources of that tension are well known: defense policy, the Soviet gas pipeline, steel subsidies. Less well known but equally central is agriculture.

Hounded by recession at home and sagging farm sales overseas, the Reagan administration, U.S. farm organizations and farm state members of Congress have begun a fierce attack on the agricultural policies of the European Economic Community, stirring concern on both sides of the Atlantic over the possibility of a farm trade war.

The U.S. complaint is that European governments are unfairly denying U.S. farmers sales they would otherwise have, partly through outright protectionism, partly through subsidies without which European farmers could not compete.

A basic goal of EEC policy is to promote domestic social stability by keeping farmers prosperous and by keeping them on their farms, even though they may not be efficient enough to be competitive with American farmers.

The EEC achieves its aim by keeping internal prices high and shielding its farmers from foreign competition through a complicated system of price supports, common pricing, minimum import prices, import duties and export subsidies.

Some U.S. products -- notably corn gluten, soybeans, vegetable fats and oils -- go into the EEC duty free, largely because they are unavailable domestically.

But many other U.S. products are subject to import duties that make them unattractive and to an EEC policy of buying first from member nations. The EEC policy has encouraged production and has led to surpluses of some commodities, which are moved into world markets.

"A major concern here," said one U.S. official, "is that these EEC policies will lead to a rewriting of world agricultural trade practices. Under their approach, Europe would be insulated from these changes. When the world has too much and other countries reduce production, the EEC members don't adjust because they are protected. It has happened with wheat, wheat flour, poultry and eggs, meat and sugar. The EEC is not responding."

Yet there is an opposite side to this story. Notwithstanding U.S. complaints, huge ironies run through the picture. For example:

* As a whole, the EEC is the United States' most lucrative agricultural market. This country will sell $9 billion worth of agricultural goods to EEC nations this year, yet in return buy only $2 billion worth, much of it in the form of dairy products and wine.

* While the administration criticizes EEC subsidies, the EEC points right back at U.S. farmers' government help: price support loans, direct income supplements, grain storage payments, marketing orders, export credits, low-interest operating and farm-purchase loans and other devices.

* Subsidy, as such, may be in the eye of the beholder. An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study found that between 1976 and 1978 U.S. and European national governmental budget outlays for agriculture -- that is, "subsidies" -- were almost the same. Spending averaged 39.2 percent of agricultural value added in the EEC, 37.6 percent in the United States.

* A new paper by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), following the line that the Europeans are plunging into new export markets, reports that EEC shipments to the Soviet Union are up more than 200 percent since 1979. The report does not note that the United States cut its share of the Soviet market in a major way by imposing a partial grain embargo in 1980.

* A frequent charge that EEC exports impinge on U.S. markets runs into statistical trouble. In wheat, for example, EEC exports doubled between 1969 and 1981 to 14 million tons, but the EEC's share of the world market dropped from 16.6 to 14.9 percent.

U.S. exports, meanwhile, went from 16.5 million tons to 41.9 million tons, and the market share moved from 38.4 to 44.8 percent.

This is roughly where a Chris Righton comes in.

When an American wheat farmer sends a bushel of his grain to, say, the Soviet Union, he will get about $2.50 for it. Because the United States dominates world wheat trade, the American price effectively becomes the world price.

But when Righton sends a bushel of his wheat to the Soviets, he will get about $4.53 for it. Same type of wheat, same quality, same purchaser, perhaps even the same export trader. The difference is that EEC policy guarantees Righton a price for his grain by subsidizing his effort, and U.S. farm policy does not.

An argument put forth by EEC members is that the United States, instead of complaining about the subsidy, should take steps to force up world prices. That appeals to U.S. farmers, but the Reagan administration says such a move would intrude in free markets and price U.S. farmers out of world markets.

Farmer Righton, on a visit here this year, expressed a common EEC outlook: "I don't think we're as damaging to U.S. interests as we are made out to be. We in Europe are, after all, your very best customers. Your administration is putting a smokescreen over American farmers' eyes: By promising to discipline the EC, they avoid having to do anything directly for farmers at home."

The whys and wherefores are in hot dispute, but the gloves, clearly, have been removed. Both here and in Europe there is concern that Agriculture Secretary John R. Block's threats will turn to more contention reminiscent of the painful "Chicken War" over curbs on U.S. poultry sales in the 1960s.

After Block told the House Agriculture Committee last winter that "we are going to do battle with the EEC wherever and whenever it is necessary," Chairman E (Kika) de la Garza (D-Tex.) admonished him to cool it.

Don't pick a fight with America's best farm market, de la Garza warned. But the warnings continue to roll from the administration.

"We have only one alternative," Block said in a speech this summer. "That alternative is to deviate temporarily from our free-market stance and engage in costly short-run trade wars. If that is what it takes to achieve the principles of free markets, then we'll have to start looking more seriously in that direction."

As one approach, U.S. agricultural interests have taken complaints about unfair subsidy and competition to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) over such issues as wheat flour, poultry, pasta, canned fruits and raisins, Mediterranean citrus policy.

More are likely to come as the United States presses its cases.

The Europeans, for their part, seem not cowed. Claude Villain, EEC director general for agriculture, recently told a Minnesota audience, "Europe is not going to abandon its agriculture . . . . It is important that you on this side of the Atlantic should realize this."

Edith Cresson, the French minister of agriculture, met with Block late last month and, according to sources, delivered the same message in an acrimonious encounter. European embassy agricultural attaches repeat the theme whenever meeting with Americans.

Block and other administration farm spokesmen have tempered their rhetoric somewhat since June, but the tensions remain. And on Capitol Hill there are moves to convert Block's talk into legislative remedies to boost U.S. farm exports with the same type of subsidies the secretary denounces.

Congress already has begun moving to implant a new system of export subsidies for American farmers. The Senate, for example, adopted in its budget reconciliation bill last week a provision allowing up to $190 million in payment to farmers to meet "unfair competition" from abroad.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Agriculture Committee chairman, was the chief sponsor of the subsidy proposal. "The EC has not stopped their unfair trade practices," Helms said. "It's time we gave them a dose of their own medicine."

The House version of the reconciliation bill contains no such provision, but Rep. Tom Hagedorn (R-Minn.), among others, is pushing legislation similar to the Helms approach. The House Agriculture and Foreign Affairs committees have scheduled a general hearing for today on the agricultural export issue.

The administration has not yet taken a formal position, but officials at USDA see these legislative approaches as ways of putting pressure on the European Economic Community to be more conciliatory in allowing U.S. products into their markets and in reducing its subsidies to farmers.

"We have had no export subsidies since 1974," one official said, "but if we did this, we would impress the Europeans. But it could lead to some serious give-and-take . . . . No one wants a trade war, but this is highly political."

Tony Bond, a British agricultural attache here, agreed, but from another perspective.

"If the United States retaliates, we could be back to the chicken wars," he said. "We couldn't complain if Congress approved export subsidies because we have them. We would say it's all very well, but it makes nonsense of the row you're supposed to be having with us."