Food price issues neglected in race for presidency

by Morton Sosland
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At this late point in the contest for the presidency, it is apparent that the outcome will have no direct impact on agricultural supports, which are so important to the business of food. Both candidates are doing everything possible to disassociate themselves and their new administrations from policies enacted during the eight years of the presidency of George W. Bush. Thus, neither Senator John McCain nor Senator Barack Obama has been bold enough to hint of taking up where Mr. Bush lost in his efforts to veto this year’s farm bill, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. If there ever was a farm bill that needed re-thinking, in light of what has happened in the markets just as the law was enacted, it is this bill. The act does little to put American agriculture in position to compete effectively in global markets or even to serve effectively the domestic food market.

Listening attentively to the political conventions in Denver and St. Paul provided scant guidance as to the future direction of agricultural policy. American food and agricultural policy that not many years ago was the centerpiece of this sort of national convocation hardly earned mention. Neither presidential candidate, nor vice-president, had anything to say about food policy. This is no surprise considering that none of the three senators and the one governor who make up the two tickets have background or experience in this area of the economy. Sometimes in the past vice-presidential candidates were chosen for their experience in agriculture, but that hardly fits the current two, from Alaska and Delaware.

The two platforms, which are usually unheeded once the debating and campaigning intensify, include relatively small sections devoted to "rural America" in the case of one and "agricultural communities" for the other. It is the latter, the Republican Party Platform, that has the most daring approach by declaring, "The U.S. government should end mandates for ethanol and let the free market work." In view of the hackles that position is likely to raise in some states, and even though it does reflect Mr. McCain’s longstanding doubts about ethanol policy, it is no surprise that this step has not become a cornerstone of the Republican campaign. Instead, Mr. McCain will probably find it easier to focus on the importance of "a sensible economic safety net," which is half-hearted endorsement of Mr. Bush’s veto of the 2008 bill. Another point that may win wide acceptance is Republican embrace of "greater investment in conservation incentive programs."

The platform provided to Mr. Obama does not neglect the "safety net" issue, promising permanent disaster relief, expanded crop research and emphasis on trade. Here it should be no surprise that the Democratic platform seeks to revive the commitment of all Americans to "preserving and increasing the economic vitality of family farms." It is adherence to that belief that led to the adoption of costly farm support programs. This year’s platform embraces ethanol by saying, "We depend on those in agriculture to produce food, feed, fiber and fuel," with those last two words an addition of considerable consequence, not just for America’s energy policy but also for sectors of the food industry that blame ethanol for a large share of food inflation.

Both platforms avoid casting blame for the record high food inflation this year. While recent declines in commodities may ease those concerns, it seems unrealistic for such an important development to be neglected in this campaign. Based on how the platforms read and what the candidates have said so far, it seems likely that any reference to this matter will not receive serious consideration. Of the many horrendous issues facing America and particularly the domestic economy, few deserve more understanding and more serious analysis than the totally new world of food and agricultural prices that has already caused so much havoc.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 28, 2008, starting on Page 7. Click
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