[EDITORIALS]Plow ahead carefullyThe government plans to allow farmland ownership by nonfarmers, and a debate is mounting over the plan's apparent signal that this country's farmland policy may be headed for a comprehensive change. Farmland policy change involves conflicting interests where a clear-cut solution is inherently difficult to find.
We are faced with the need for a dramatic overhaul of the existing farmland policy with the opening of a new round of World Trade Organization talks. The proposed change to put "quality ahead of quantity" in farming requires a completely different interpretation of the concept of farmland preservation. The reality is that life on our farms has become nearly impossible to live sufficiently solely by farming the land. Farmers absolutely require new sources of income to supplement income from farming. Those new sources may include service businesses including restaurants and tourism, and capital inflow from urban centers is needed for this to happen. The reality in effect means the status quo in farm policy of an "all or nothing" approach － preserve or develop － is no longer effective. Any change in the farmland policy requires caution because potential benefits and hazards are hard to judge in a short time line.
Our farmland policy has been based more than anything on securing farmland wide enough to produce a self-sufficient amount of grain for the nation and preventing speculative investment in farmland. The result was an excessively restrictive regulation of transactions in farmland. It was incongruent with reality, and the gradual changes to farms led farmers themselves to begin calling for changes. An example is the ban on the possession of inherited farmland larger than 9,900 square meters if the heir does not farm it. Disallowing farmers to operate even a bed-and-breakfast on their property is another example. And urban residents have given up on the idea of weekend farming because of the ban on registering land parcels that are smaller than 900 square meters. Lifting restrictions on marginal farmland allows more weekend farming. This may eventually bring more capital to farms and promote urban and rural exchange to help rural areas develop.
But any hasty move on our farmland policy and the sudden development of rural areas will lead to confusion on the farms. Many urban owners of farmland simply possess that land for speculative purposes. As proof, more than 25,000 people have been ordered to dispose of the farmland they owned but did not farm. In Yongin, we have an example of what can happen if an acquisition of semi-farmland is allowed for nonfarming purposes － unchecked speculative dealing for development can go out of control. In the process of developing large areas of farmland for residential towns, there were former farmer-property owners with a quick fortune on their hands often losing control of their lives. Any growth that existed on farms would disappear quickly.
Land planning that seeks efficiency and economy must begin with city planning that is in the framework of the entire national land, and farmland policy must begin on that overall plan. Farmland when environmentally damaged is nearly impossible to restore. We need to look at why Japan chooses to preserve idle farmland that represents 36 percent of the country's area even when it means subsidizing the people who farm that land. There should be no place for impulsive ideas or urban-focused consideration in a farmland policy. It must be formulated and undertaken in an orderly manner that looks at the issue in the larger framework of farm restructuring.