Commentary: Food as issue losing to Iraq, flag pins

by Josh Sosland
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Surging rice prices, spurred by hoarding and social unrest in many rice-deficit countries, are the latest manifestation of global food problems that have wracked the U.S. baking ingredient markets. Viewed as a blow to the most economically deprived populations, the rice market developments attracted considerable national media coverage last week. Still, even after this story and so many earlier ones related to other grains and food, it is difficult to shake the sense that surging prices have failed to penetrate the American consciousness as a story of great consequence.

While it’s clear that the lag in food price hikes versus underlying commodity price advances has contributed to this seeming indifference, other distractions play a role. This lack of interest was on display last week in a Democratic candidate debate in Philadelphia between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. After the moderators spent more than an hour probing the candidates’ character (including whether Mr. Obama will or will not wear flag lapel pins), a number of substantive issues were discussed, but food was not among them. An ABC transcript shows that the word "economy" was uttered 17 times during the debate by moderators or debaters; "Iraq," 27 times; "oil," 6; "jobs," 8; "health care," 11; "flag," 6; and "mortgage," 2. By contrast, the words "food," "grain," and "wheat" failed to draw a single mention. If conditions in agricultural markets do not settle down in the weeks ahead, it’s difficult to imagine the presidential candidates avoiding the food issue when debates resume in the fall.

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