Few things are more fundamental than food. That's why the $500 billion-a-year food production industry is so thoroughly represented in Washington.

Too thoroughly, it turns out.

Two of the capital's oldest and most deeply rooted trade associations -- both advocates for food -- may be about to merge. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Products Association could soon agree to become a single group.

K Street will mourn the change. Many of its most prominent players once worked for or closely with these venerable organizations.

Besides, a bunch of people, lobbyists in particular, almost invariably would lose their jobs. That's one of the main reasons for a merger to begin with -- to find cost savings for the big companies that pay the bills.

But truth be told, the disappearance of trade associations is a longtime and probably accelerating trend that experts say will inevitably lead to fewer industry lobbying groups in the nation's capital.

So watch the fate of the foods. There you will see the future of trade associations on K Street.

Officially, the organizations have acknowledged that they are engaged in "a serious dialogue" about a possible merger. They have hired McKinsey and Co., the management consulting firm, to study the feasibility of a merger or some other alternative structure.

Unofficially, insiders say McKinsey sees wisdom in making the two groups into one, and the boards of both will meet as early as this week to approve a plan to unite.

Both are multimillion-dollar organizations, nearly 100 years old, with many employees, not all of whom would have jobs if a merger is completed. The two also have as members in common about 40 major food-making companies. These include Procter & Gamble Co., ConAgra Foods Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Co., H.J. Heinz Co., General Mills Inc. and Campbell Soup Co., according to their Web sites.

Neither group will say how much their members pay in dues, but it would be a surprise if the largest among their members didn't fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Even for a conglomerate, the elimination of one such membership would be a savings worth making -- as long as not much was lost in the bargain. Thus the urge to merge.

FPA has a greater number of small food producers in its membership than does GMA, which tends to represent more of the Big Boys of the industry. FPA, which had until recently been called the National Food Processors Association, started out as the National Canners Association and still has a lot of canning firms in its ranks.

Some of GMA's members, such as Clorox Co., make consumer products. FPA, on the other hand, focuses on food. FPA also has a for-profit laboratory in the San Francisco Bay area that helps develop and test new foods, as well as 50 scientists in the District who research food quality and safety.

But on matters of public policy the two associations rarely diverge. They tend to lobby in lockstep on food safety, taxes, and other issues of legislation and regulation. Thus the question: Why should they remain apart?

The first significant sign that a merger might be near came when 64-year-old C. Manly Molpus, GMA's president since 1990, told his board that he would retire at the end of next year. Replacing the top executive is a sea-change moment for any trade group. If an association is going to transform itself, that's generally the best time to do it.

FPA has also recently had its own transition that was widely noticed in official Washington. In January, Cal Dooley, a former congressman from California, was named FPA's president, becoming one of only two Democrats to get a major trade association job in recent years. (The other was Dan Glickman, the former Kansas congressman and agriculture secretary who took over the Motion Picture Association, which had long been considered friendly to Democrats anyway.)

If GMA and FPA combine, one of the hottest guessing games in town will be whether the Republican majority here has been so weakened by recent events -- President Bush's fall in the polls, the indictment of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) etc. -- that a Democrat can hold onto a major trade association job and not be shut out by the GOP forces that have been mythologized as the K Street Project.

Neither GMA nor FPA will say if they plan to merge. They also decline to speculate about who would become chief executive if they do.

A past president of GMA is one of the capital's most storied lobbyists. George Koch (pronounced "Cook"), who headed the GMA for 23 years before Molpus came aboard, is considered an inventor of the modern-day trade group. With the aid of two other food-related groups, he championed the spread of the universal product code, those multi-lined bars on the items we buy in supermarkets.

Koch also mentored some of K Street's most prominent figures, including Bryce L. "Larry" Harlow, president of Timmons & Co.; James C. May, president of the Air Transport Association; and Thomas E. Wheeler, the recently retired president of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

Koch, 78, was and remains a tireless worker, famous for holding two breakfast meetings a day. The reason for that, he said, was to fit enough into his schedule so he could get home to eat dinner with his family.

The priority paid off; his children have gone on to successful careers. One of his sons, Robert P. Koch, is president of the Wine Institute, which lobbies for California vineyards. Bobby Koch is also only the second man in history to be the son-in-law and brother-in-law of a president of the United States. He is married to Doro Bush, the daughter of George H.W. Bush and the sister of George W. Bush.

The elder Koch's history with the universal product code is a study in what might happen to GMA. His allies in that effort were two food retailing associations that later merged to become what is today the Food Marketing Institute.

Combinations like that have become common. Two years ago, the American Association of Health Plans and the Health Insurance Association of America joined to form America's Health Insurance Plans. The American Plastics Council merged into the American Chemistry Council in 2001. In 1993, the National Forest Products Association and the American Paper Institute became the American Forest and Paper Association. The list goes on and on.

The number of trade and professional groups has increased overall in recent years to about 86,000. But John H. Graham IV, president of the American Society of Association Executives, said that he believes the increase has come among professional societies -- for doctors, scientists and the like -- and not in industry trade associations, where shrinkage is the norm.

He knows first hand. His organization was produced by a merger two years with the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives.

Lobbyists' Holiday Cheer

It's that time of year again. Please e-mail examples of pro bono lobbying that you've done or that you know about for a special holiday column! Send examples early and often.

Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address is kstreetconfidential@washpost.com. He will be online to discuss trade group shrinkage today at 11 a.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/ business.