[Viewpoint]Helping farmers face the future

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[Viewpoint]Helping farmers face the future

President Roh Moo-hyun recently said, “We should acknowledge that agriculture is also within the bounds of the market. Agricultural products are also commodities and if our crops lose their competitiveness, we can no longer afford farming as an industry.”
In other words, the agricultural sector cannot be protected any longer in a greenhouse away from reality.
The real question lies in how Korea’s agricultural sector can enhance competitiveness and survive fierce international competition. We risk killing the agricultural sector if we just make demands of our farming community without suggesting solutions to increase competitiveness.
Three things have driven Korea’s agriculture to the current crisis. First, increased competition from imported farm products has damaged local producers as our domestic market has become more open.
Second, although the government has spent more than 130 trillion won ($138 billion) on the agricultural sector since the early 1990s, the results have been disappointing; irregularities have abounded and the policy has been inefficient.
Third, the agricultural sector itself must reflect on its performance. It was over 20 years ago that the issue of opening our agricultural market to foreign competition was first raised, but it is undeniable that the farming sector itself has made almost no effort to change its practices in response to the market opening.
This external competition is certainly a threat to our economy, but it can also be turned into an opportunity depending on the way we respond to it. The tariff barriers on our export commodities will also be lowered with the opening of the market. Success will depend on whether we can enhance the competitiveness of our agricultural sector to a level that is up to international standards.
We are at a point in time that demands that we change our way of thinking and learn to produce high-quality farm products that can be exported. As we see in the case of the health-care boom in Korea, which is an international trend now, the number of consumers who prefer to buy high-quality, organic farm products, even at a higher price, is increasing.
Therefore, there is certainly hope for the agricultural sector, if only we can create a new market for high-value farm products.
Thankfully, there is some recent momentum for change within the agricultural community that offers some hope for the future. Around 1,000 innovative farmers gathered at the Agriculture Venture University in November 2005 to adopt a “declaration of hope for Korean agriculture.” They pledged to nurture agriculture as a new growth engine by changing the attitudes and approaches of farmers themselves.
The success stories of farmers who pursue “small but strong” agriculture demonstrate that the sector can also develop profitable business models.
I propose three action plans for improving the competitiveness of Korean agriculture.
First of all, agriculture as an industry should be upgraded by integrating applicable technology from other industries. Agriculture is changing from an industry of “producing simply something to eat” to an industry of “providing something to eat and enjoy.” Therefore, the agricultural community should find a way to connect agriculture with other related industries such as sightseeing, leisure and the pharmaceutical industry. It should also link up with the fields of art and culture, if that is necessary to create a new market.
Secondly, I propose to implement market-oriented management in farming. The old days, when farmers cultivated land without a concrete plan, are over. We have to get rid of the traditional belief that the role of a farmer stops at producing good-quality farm produce. Instead, we must expand the agriculture arena to the production of value-added products which will be popular in the market. By using new technology and ideas, farmers can push the boundaries of what is meant by agriculture. For this, farmers should see agriculture from a business management point of view and open up new markets by utilizing various marketing and networking techniques. The era in agricultural management of thinking of and sympathizing with consumers has arrived.
Thirdly, it is important that those involved in farm production should change. There surely were problems with government support that simply poured money into the farming sector. However, the responsibility of farmers, who have failed to respond to the change properly, is also big.
As a farmer wrote in a letter: “We also know the current of the times, but we worried that more farmers would give up farming. What we want is not government support or money. What we want is hope.”
As the farmer pointed out, what farmers need is not belated compensation in cash, but hope.
That will come from change.
Two words: “Change” and “Competitiveness” are the keys to the future of Korean agriculture.

*The writer is a senior researcher at the Samsung Economic Research Institute. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Min Seung-gyu
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