[Viewpoint]The furor and future of farmingThe scandal over rice farm subsidies has swept the entire country. On Oct. 6, the alleged attempt by former vice minister for health and welfare Lee Bong-hwa to claim subsidy money became a black hole that absorbed the National Assembly inspection of the government, prompting an investigation over the scandal.
In the furor over the subsidy scandal, politicians have been quick to speak up about their love for the farmers.
Their love may have other intentions, but they have loudly raised their voices to criticize the policy that wasted national funds and hurt the farmers’ feelings.
The Ministry for Food Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, and the Board of Audit and Inspection are competing against each other in rushing to punish those who illegitimately collected the subsidies and to revise the list of recipients.
However they all had different definitions of “unjust,” and on Oct. 27, the government admonished civil servants and employees of public corporations to voluntarily turn themselves in.
The citizens are furious. Unlawfully collecting the rice farm subsidy is tantamount to stealing.
Farmers’ issues have never been so highlighted for a long time. It is all thanks to the rice farm subsidy program.
Our Korean ancestors used to think farmers were the foundation of the world, and the ancient concept seems to have come alive today.
Regardless of the debacle, the rich harvest looks strong. There hasn’t been a single typhoon this year and vegetables such as cabbages, radishes, green onions, and cucumbers are abundant.
The hum of combines harvesting rice sounds as grand as a Beethoven symphony.
Farmers are feeling rich as they see their rice crops. While the economic and financial crises pressure us all, the countryside seems to be flourishing in autumn.
However, the reality might not be so pleasant.
“It is disastrous. An 80 kilogram sack of rice still costs 170,000 won ($119.34) this year, but the prices of fertilizer, pesticide and gasoline have doubled. The cost of combine use for rice harvest used to be 330 won per 3.3 square meters, but it rose to 430 won this year. And the price of cabbage has plummeted,” said a farmer friend of mine from my hometown.
According to him, the rice farm subsidy system was a mess from the beginning.
“You would be a fool not to apply for the subsidy when the government even offered transfer tax exemption.”
Many “farmers wearing neckties” collected the subsidies.
“The government and local authorities knew what was going on, and the latest fuss is just a show.” He said he did not understand for whom the subsidy was actually intended.
The media is also largely responsible for failing to notice the loophole in the system.
It is important to take the controversy over the rice farm subsidy as an opportunity to solemnly review the reality in the agricultural communities and prepare plans to help them.
When the farmers are happy, the citizens’ table is secure and healthy.
According to the National Statistical Office’s 2007 data, the rural population has decreased by 2 million in 10 years to 3.2 million.
The more serious problem is the aging of the farming community.
Thirty-three percent of the farmers are in their 60s, and 28 percent are in the 70s. Six out of ten farmers are 60 years or older. Only 2.5 percent of the farmers are under 40.
And the farmers are working small scale. The size of Korean farm land per family is 1.2 hectares, about half of Japan’s average of 2 hectares, and not even comparable to farms in the United States and Canada of 60, and 120 hectares, respectively.
We need to review agricultural issues not just in terms of the farmers but for food security. While the county seems to have abundant produce, Korea’s rate of agricultural self-sufficiency is only 27 percent.
We are ranked as one of the lowest - 26th among the 29 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
While we produce 95.8 percent of the rice we consume, we only produce about 5 percent of other crops. And the government does not have a plan to increase production of beans, corn and wheat.
The tables of ordinary people are becoming less and less healthy with Chinese imports tainted with melamine, amid a shrinking economy and skyrocketing international crop prices.
The essential purpose of the rice farm subsidy is to support ownership of dwindling farm land and provide realistic assistance for farmers.
Article 121 of the Constitution, which stipulates that only those who farm can own farm land, needs to be reconsidered.
We cannot forever depend on the food produced by aging farmers in their 60s and 70s.
The laws restricting ownership need to be modified to accommodate the reality.
The new restriction should be able to prevent unlawful use of farmlands and speculation and still enable large-scale corporate farming and proxy management. The distribution structure needs to be improved and the government should offer education and training for farmers.
We need to prepare for the time when the number of farmers is halved 10 years from now. Investigating the rice farm subsidy scandal is needed, but we are more desperate for a fundamental overhaul of agricultural policy.
We need to rejuvenate our aging farming villages.
*The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
BY Yang Young-yu