[Viewpoint]Rethink agriculture policy

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[Viewpoint]Rethink agriculture policy

The presidential transition team is in full swing crafting new policies for the Lee Myung-bak administration, but we haven’t yet heard any discussion on agricultural policies. Aside from the idea of reorganizing the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry into the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishery and Food, we cannot be sure whether the next administration plans to replace the agricultural policies of the Roh Moo-hyun administration. It is unclear what new policies it plans to introduce. President-elect Lee had a meeting with leaders of farming and fishing organizations and stressed he would use the era of free trade agreements as an opportunity for growth. However, little is known about how his perspective on agricultural administration is different from those of past administrations and how the process of turning this perspective into policies is progressing.
The agricultural and fishery industries took off about 20 years ago when restrictions on agricultural and marine product imports were lifted in 1989. With the Uruguay Round negotiations in 1993 and the free trade agreement between Korea and Chile in 1999, the opening of the agricultural and fishing markets became a trend. However, since the beginning of the Kim Dae-jung administration in 1998, the government has focused on distribution-oriented pork-barrel agricultural policies to safeguard small and struggling farming and fishing households, instead of enhancing competitiveness. The farming and fishing sectors functioned increasingly less like industries, and the passive stance of appealing for protection became the focus of agricultural administration.
No longer were farming and fishing households proud and active economic actors; they have become objects of social sympathy and consideration. The young generation avoided the futureless agricultural and fishing industries, and the aging of the sector’s work force accelerated.
Despite increased assistance from the government, polarization among the farming and fishing households became aggravated. A strange phenomenon ensued: the more financial subsidies farming and fishing households received from the government, the bigger their debts grew. The moral hazard of free money being handed out from the government spread in farming and fishing villages. Discussion is widespread over concern that if money continues to be distributed so randomly, there will be no future for the agricultural and fishing industries.
President-elect Lee has declared he would make 2008 the first year of advancement for the Republic of Korea as his administration takes office. However, without the advancement of the agricultural and fishing industries and rural villages, there will be no advancement for the country. It is about time we correct the misguided practices of the last decade and draft an advanced agricultural policy to revitalize Korean agriculture and fishery and develop fishing and farming villages.
We need autonomous and decentralized agricultural administration that respects civilian creativity and market theories. In order to implement such policies, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry should be overhauled. The National Agricultural Cooperative Federation and the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives should change. The capability of local governments to carry out agricultural policies should be improved.
Once we have improved the policy environment, agriculture and fisheries can grow into lean yet powerful industries that can compete with other countries while we protect the national health and environment. Our agriculture and fisheries have great prospects. They can be promoted as industries creating new growth engines such as biofuels, as well as being centers of recreation and leisure.
Agriculture and fisheries should not be regarded as primary industries; they should instead be nurtured as income-generating complex secondary industries. Only then will we see wealthy farmers and fishermen and successful agricultural and fishing entrepreneurs.
We should learn from the Netherlands, New Zealand, Denmark, Chile and Norway. Their small yet powerful agriculture and fisheries sectors are traditionally vibrant but were developed only after strenuous efforts to survive through international competition. For the development of agricultural and fishing villages, we should pursue prosperity of both urban and rural regions by restoring local communities and preparing a system to subsidize incomes for the small farming and fishing households that cannot keep up with advancement due to aging.
Over 60 percent of the population in rural areas is employed in non-farming or fishing occupations, and the countryside consists of more than fishing and farming villages. These rural towns should be opened to all citizens as places that bring prosperity and relaxation. It’s time the government pursues fair and advanced agricultural policy instead of porkbarrel pandering to farmers and fishermen. I hope 2008 marks the beginning of advanced policies for agriculture and fisheries as well as the advancement of the republic.

*The writer, a former Blue House senior secretary for agriculture, forestry and fisheries, is a visiting professor at Chonnam National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choe Yang-boo
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