[OUTLOOK]Wanted: A Fearless Agriculture Policy

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[OUTLOOK]Wanted: A Fearless Agriculture Policy

Until 1970, Somalia was self-sufficient in agriculture, but now it struggles against famine and constant civil wars because of drought and desertification.

An International Monetary Fund restructuring program was aimed at aiding the devastated nation. It forced Somalia to export its crops in order to earn foreign exchange. Imported inexpensive millet and rice from Western countries was very much appreciated by a nation that was close to starvation. After 10 years of receiving foreign food assistance, the once self-sufficient country now relies entirely on foreign food aid.

U.S. exports of surplus agricultural products, which were conducted to relieve hunger in Somalia, have damaged the country's agricultural foundation, and exports of tax-free beef products from the European Union with the same good intentions have devastated Somalia's cattle breeding. The United States and the European Union, both of which claim to be concerned for the well-being of the entire world, may not have wrecked Somalia's survival skills intentionally.

According to a passage in the Old Testament, Joseph saved Egypt from starvation when he stored grain during seven years of abundance, in preparation for seven lean years to come.

A report by the Worldwatch Institute on the 20th century says the turning point from our modern years of abundance to the years of famine was in 1996. In that year, the world's food stocks declined to 48 days of consumption, while the price of major agricultural products on the Chicago Board of Trade surged to a record high.

Anxious traders saw China, the world's leading agricultural exporter became the world's second-largest food importing country. Concern over how to provide food to China, which is home to one-fifth of the world's people, spread quickly around the world. In 1995, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan reported that even if the rate of increase of agricultural production continued, prices for the most part would surge 20 percent by the year 2010. If other factors, such as environmental issues, were considered, it said, the price of rice would double and the population suffering from chronic malnutrition would reach 700 million.

Although more than 200 years have passed since the melancholy predictions of Thomas Robert Malthus in his "Essay on the Principle of Population," trepidation about population increases outstripping food supplies lingers.

The Korean government claims that its motives for lowering subsidies or restricting agricultural production are to restrict overproduction and stop illegal transactions. But in general, overproduction is detrimental for wealthy people but not for all mankind. Exporters like the United States and the Cairns Group want to abolish all governmental subsidy to agricultural production. If they prevail, importers would have to reduce their agricultural production. But no country seems to address the problem.

The Korean government had assured domestic farmers that it would stand firm on the issue of opening the rice market at the Uruguay Round. That effort ended with the minister of agriculture and forestry resigning his post. The government also announced a plan to stimulate competitiveness in the agricultural sector. The government also pledged to reduce the production cost of rice to world levels by the year 2004. But three years before that date, the cost of producing of domestic rice is five times that of the United States and even more than that compared to Chinese rice. What has the government been doing the past few years?

Recently the WTO ministerial meeting ended. If the domestic agricultural market has to be opened three years from now as stated in the WTO declaration, our rice market will be shattered. Until this day our rice market has been protected by a minimum market access scheme, which allowed us to limit rice imports.

To protect our rice market, tariffs must be set at 500 percent or more. China and the United States will not let us get away with it. Although the Japanese have turned their backs on us and our government does not want to be a "party pooper" in the WTO, its acquiescence is disappointing. Why is it wrong for us to be unyielding and assert our rights to protect the domestic agricultural sector when WTO bullies, the United States, European Union, Japan and China, are rampaging through the negotiations?

The public heard the same story about gains in other sectors in exchange for yielding in agriculture a decade ago, and we have also heard enough of our government's lamenting about its inability to resist global trends. We elected this government to represent us and cope with such matters wisely, in the hope that we will not end up as Somalia did 30 years ago.


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The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Joseph W. Chung

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