[Viewpoint] Regaining agricultural sovereignty

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[Viewpoint] Regaining agricultural sovereignty

Of the 256 nations around the world, Korea has the 13th-largest economy. The combined territories of the two Koreas comprise the 85th-largest land area in the world. The country’s language is the world’s 18th-most spoken.

Against this backdrop, consider agriculture. Simply put, agriculture is the foundation of sovereignty and provides the basis for industrial development. No country of Korea’s size has abandoned agriculture.

Korea, however, is only self-sufficient for 20 percent of its grain consumption, recording about a $16 billion trade deficit a year. Korea is losing its food sovereignty.

Because the nation’s manufacturing industry is strong in the global market, the country sees no difficulty in importing food, but the situation should Korea lose its manufacturing industry’s competitiveness is unimaginable.

What are the problems facing Korea’s agriculture?

They come down to three paradoxes. First, talented students major in agricultural studies at universities that have excellent programs, but only a few graduates actually find jobs in the agriculture sector. Agricultural science, centered on biology and environmental science, has become globalized, but Korea’s agricultural industry is still about planting grain and livestock farming.

Even if the students study advanced technologies, there are no businesses in Korea that can utilize such talents, so they have no choice but to become micro-farmers. It is no surprise that talented students invest their lives elsewhere.

Unless great job opportunities open up in a globalized agricultural giant, it’s clear that few talented students will work in the industry.

Second, the government spends about 10 trillion won ($7.95 billion) annually for farmers, but very few actually appreciate the support. Most of the state investment is focused on national infrastructure, and farmers are supported through loans. It’s disappointing that there is little assistance. And loans for farmers sometimes don’t show an immediate impact because the gestation period of investment is long in the agricultural industry. Therefore, farmers often feel bitter about government loans. For example, the government spent about 26 trillion won in loans on farmers from 1992 to 2002. During the same period, the farm household debt increased from 9 trillion won to 35 trillion won, showing that such loans tend to become long-term debts.

Instead of supporting individual farmers, the government should concentrate on assisting agricultural companies, and farmers should participate in the business to earn profits.

The last paradox is that farmers are leaving for the cities, while exhausted urban workers say they want to be farmers.

There are few jobs for young people in farming towns. Further, children’s education is an issue in rural areas. It is no wonder that farming villages are becoming empty.

Because there is no proper social safety net, the elderly cannot go back to their hometowns. Farming villages’ infrastructure and systems should be improved so that children can live healthy lives and receive a good education, while the elderly can be assisted by the young.

The government said it will invest or loan about 5.16 trillion won to improve welfare, education and regional development programs of farming and fishing villages around the nation this year. There are about 1.27 million farming and fishing households, and each household will receive an average of 4 million won in benefits.

The programs should do more than just hand out the money, but the prospect doesn’t appear bright.

Many are plans to hand out subsidies, and in many cases, the money rarely reaches those in need. Furthermore, projects, when they succeed, only bring an agricultural towns’ level up to that of a city.

The key reason for supporting agricultural towns and farmers is to secure food sovereignty. But because there is a limit in domestic production, imports are inevitable.

To secure food sovereignty, Korea must expand its agricultural horizon so that the country can meet the same level as key world producers and suppliers.

It will be difficult, but the country must focus on its agricultural industry and support companies so that agricultural science majors can find jobs.

Korea’s farming industry must be expanded from mere production to a true knowledge industry, and the nation needs to shift its ideas so that it can survive in the world market.

When such a change takes place, Korea’s agricultural industry will become a national growth engine, just like that of the Netherlands and New Zealand.

*The writer is a professor of rural systems engineering at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Jung-jae
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