The issue is access to food. The setting is an ugly little quarrel between the United States and Canada over the Atlantic fisheries. The politics of it gives the largest influence to the narrowest interests -- those of the commercial fisherman. The blame goes mainly to the Carter administration, which has signed a treaty that it now cannot get through the Senate.

As an example of failure to resolve a kind of conflict likely to become more common, the case is instructive. It began with an earlier failure of the world's maritime nations to work out orderly rules allocating yields of ocean fish -- yields that apparently have reached, within the past decade, their natural limit. To protect their accustomed fishing grounds, governments began to assert national jurisdiction over 200-mile zones off their shores. But the seas within 200 miles of the New England fishing ports are also within 200 miles of Newfoundland. The conventional solution would be a line running an equal distance from the two countrie's shores. But that line cuts across the rich Georges Bank.

Eventually the United States and Canada signed two treaties -- one to establish the offshore boundary, the other to set up a joint commission to regulate the fishing. So far, so good. Then the State Department sent the treaties to the Senate.

That was 16 months ago. Absolutely nothing has happened. Sens. Claiborne Pell and Edward Kennedy are leading a bloc of New Englanders that has relegated the treaties to the deep freeze. The senators have proposed sevearl amendments that, in turn, the Canadians have denounced as unacceptable. The only people who care much about the outcome are the New England fisherman -- who are vehemently against the treaties. The administration's interest seems to have faded.

Last spring, the American side began gloomily telling the Canadians that, at best, they could not reasonably expect ratification before the election. In June, the Canadians accused the U.S. government of permitting the American boats to increase their catches of scallops well beyond the agreed limits. In retaliation, the Canadian government has now greatly increased the Canadian fishermen's quotas for cod, haddock, and flounder. This back and forth promises systematic overfishing and, if it goes on long, damage to the fisheries.

At one level, this is simply the political failure of an administration that signed a treaty and then couldn't get it through the Senate. But there is also the degrading spectacle of two of the richest, best-fed and happiest of nations spitting at each other in frustration at their inability to govern a vast common resource, for their own benefit and the world's.