[EDITORIALS]A pungent lesson

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[EDITORIALS]A pungent lesson

It was not long ago that the Korean government imported Chinese garlic and sold it to other countries at cheaper prices because of the Korean government's poor negotiation skills. It is embarrassing to see controversies about the garlic agreement with China crop up again.

In July 2000, when Seoul settled a trade dispute over garlic with Beijing, the Korean government agreed not to extend safeguards against imports of Chinese garlic after an agreement expires at the end of the year. The safeguard notation was included in the fine print of the agreement. Nevertheless, the government did not reveal the fact when it announced the agreement. Nor did it try to let the public know about it. Unfortunately, Korean garlic farmers, who learned of that fine print belatedly, have lost time to brace themselves for the impact.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry may explain that it did not think it was necessary to make an effort to provide further information about the garlic safeguards, which are supposed to expire at the end of this year. But the expiration of the import barrier is one thing, and the agreement not to extend it is another.

After all, the government, fearing possible protests from farmers, did not try hard enough to inform the farmers of measures to encourage them to grow alternative crops. Unaware of such an agreement, the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, a state-run agency that helps farmers, asked the government to extend the safeguards for another four years.

For farmers whose income from rice has already been dwindling, imports of cheap Chinese garlic are a big concern. Currently, nearly half a million farming households, or 37 percent of the total, are producing the pungent bulbs worth 530 billion won ($452.2 million) a year, the third-biggest crop after rice and pepper. Even during the period when the safeguards were in place, areas under garlic cultivation shrank by more than 10 percent every year. Cheap imports would deal a severe blow to local farmers. Seoul must be quick to draw up measures to cut production cost of domestic garlic and provide farmers with guarantees for a minimum price for garlic.
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