[EDITORIALS]The rice price hot potato

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[EDITORIALS]The rice price hot potato

Rather than set a price for government purchases of domestically grown rice, the Grain Distribution Committee has proposed alternate strategies -- one to cut and one to raise the support price. We can understand the committee's dilemma in having to balance farmers' and consumers' interests in a changing world trade environment. Its proposal, however, is a far cry from the recent policy of making the nation's agricultural sector world-competitive.

A poor crop this year is compounded for the rice-growing community by the chronic shortage of young workers and the uncertainty of income. The committee must have found it difficult to propose that the government buy the rice at a lower price than last year.

But the externalities that Korea faces may be harsher. In a change of stance, Japan and Taiwan, which to date had stood with Korea in opposing the opening of domestic markets, now say that they will open. That leaves only Korea resisting the World Trade Organiza-tion's regime, with the grace period expiring in two years.

The best approach is to reduce the price of domestically grown and imported rice, letting market supply and demand determine the price. To do that, the government should shift from subsidizing rice production to enhancing farmers' income. The committee's proposals should have reflected such a resolve.

The committee is not the sole culprit. The government and politicians are just as culpable. With the presidential election 17 days off, bureaucrats and political candidates are loath to tell farmers to accept reality, so they offer sweeteners to the growers. We remind the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry that it turned down the committee's proposal last year for a cut in the rice purchase price.

The ball is again in the hands of the ministry, and it should realize that the time is ripe for a major policy shift. The government buys only about 15 percent of the rice crop. The committee itself has asked to be folded. Why not make other changes such as revising the country's Grain Management Act, and giving up having to get Assembly approval for the rice purchase program every year?

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