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The new year hasn’t arrived yet, but from all indications the rising cost of food seems likely to be an issue that will occupy consumers, the media, and maybe even the various politicians running for national office.

For example, the New York Times< this morning reports that while cheap food generally has been taken for granted in the United States, “the price of some foods is rising sharply, and from the corridors of Washington to the aisles of neighborhood supermarkets, a blame alert is under way.

“Among the favorite targets is ethanol, especially for food manufacturers and livestock farmers who seethe at government mandates for ethanol production. The ethanol boom, they contend, is raising corn prices, driving up the cost of producing dairy products and meat, and causing farmers to plant so much corn as to crowd out other crops.

“The results are working their way through the marketplace, in this view, with overall consumer grocery costs up roughly 5 percent in a year and feed costs up more than 20 percent.

“Now, with Congress poised to adopt a new mandate that would double the volume of ethanol made from corn, ethanol skeptics say a fateful moment has arrived, with the nation about to commit itself to decades of competition between food and fuel for the use of agricultural land.”

Ethanol isn’t the only culprit, say analysts with no stake in the argument. The Times reports that objective experts say that “ethanol has indeed contributed to rising food costs, but that is only one among several factors. Higher fuel costs are driving up the expense of growing and transporting food. And strong economic growth abroad is increasing demand for agricultural commodities, allowing once-destitute people to augment their diets with meat and dairy.”

Ironically – or maybe not – the Times also has a story this morning about how Jacques Diouf, head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, issued a warning on Monday that as food prices soar, the world food supply is dwindling, creating “a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food.”

According to the Times story, Diouf “said the crisis was a result of a confluence of recent supply and demand factors that, he said, were here to stay.

“On the supply side, the early effects of global warming have decreased crop yields in some crucial places. So has a shift away from farming for human consumption to crops for biofuels and cattle feed. Demand for grain is increasing as the world’s population grows and more is diverted to feed cattle as the population of upwardly mobile meat eaters grows … To make matters worse, high oil prices have doubled shipping costs in the last year, putting stress on poor nations that need to import food and the humanitarian agencies that provide it.”

KC's View:
The Times isn’t the only media outlet reporting this story. USA Today has a similar story this morning, and I saw a piece on CBS News that covered much of the same ground. It seems to me that this drumbeat is going to get increasingly louder, and will force politicians to issue statements on how they will deal with it.

That said, it seems to me that Americans have to acknowledge that our privileged days of cheap fuel and food are forever past, and we’re going to have to start making tougher choices than we’re used to. It isn’t radical or even profound to suggest that the world has changed irrevocably in the last five or six years, and that we have to start grappling with new realities – such as rising food costs and shortages – in a new and serious way. And by serious, I mean without some sort of misguided sense of entitlement that creates arrogance rather than compassion, and delusions of grandeur rather than clear and practical visions of the future.