The nation's unemployment rate jumped from 5 percent in April to 5.5 percent in May in the largest single-month increase in 22 years. That brought out the bears on Wall Street, where the Dow Jones Industrials tumbled more than nearly 400 points on Friday.
Investors also were concerned about the impact of soaring energy prices. Crude oil surged to a record $138.54 per barrel Friday, and is expected to push the national average price of regular gasoline above $4.00 per gallon overnight.
Proponents of renewable fuels like ethanol say the predominantly corn-based product helps reduce prices at the pump. But critics say biofuels are largely to blame for rising food prices, food shortages and civil unrest in some parts of the world.
Regardless of the actual cause of the problem, its severity prompted representatives of 180 countries to gather in Rome this week to hash out global policy on food production.
The meeting ended with a handful of proposals from United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon (Ban Key-Moon). First, U.N. members promised billions of dollars in funding from member nations. But the final tally fell short of the $30 billion the U.N. says is needed to cut world hunger in half.
Genetically modified food production was hailed by USDA Secretary Ed Schaffer and some U.N. members as another solution. U.S. representatives were critical of European restrictions that place limits on the sale of genetically modified food. Increased use of GMOs could play an essential role in boosting food production 50 percent by 2030.
Worldwide media coverage of global hunger has jumped in recent months with much of the attention aimed at U.S. production and consumption of grain supplies.
The role of food in international relations has also peaked. Even the U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, has been outspoken about domestic food policy.
Secretary Condoleeza Rice, State Department: "The United States needs to be able to locally purchase food. It would considerably drive down our transportation costs. It would considerably help the market for local goods. Right now, we have to buy so much American and transport it that it really does eat away at our food aid dollars."
Transportation costs are pinching many producers across the country as farm-state lawmakers fight a backlash against ethanol production. Back in Rome, the U.N. meeting included a battle over biofuels. In a compromise declaration, U.N. delegates stated biofuels need an "international dialogue" and new, extensive research.