Once a cultural symbol, rice relegated to afterthought
Rice, which once determined a person’s financial status and served as the beloved staple of Korean food, is becoming less symbolic and losing its appeal here as the country increasingly opens its palate to the world and moves toward globalization.
During the 1980s, the average Korean consumed 130 kilograms of rice annually. As of last year, it stood at 76 kilograms, which is roughly equivalent to two servings a day versus four several decades ago.
The plunging consumption levels have led to a huge surplus in rice - 160,000 tons every year to be exact - according to Jang Tae-pyoung, the minister of food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries.
“Koreans are consuming less and less amounts of rice and at the same time rice imports from other countries are on the rise, which is definitely creating big problems,” Jang said.
Rice, along with corn and wheat, has been a staple food for humans for thousands of years, particularly in Asia. One of the reasons is that large amounts of rice can be harvested on a small area of land. It’s also easy to grow rice during both the dry and rainy seasons in this area of the world.
You can see its historic importance in Korea by checking out the country’s folklore, where rice is often very symbolic. When Dangun came down from the heavens, for instance, it is said that he brought the three gods of nature: Poong-baek, Woon-sa and Woo-sa, all of which were particularly skilled in cultivating rice. Additionally, the character Shimcheong from an old Korean folktale sacrifices herself to a dragon sea king in order to present 300 bags of rice to a temple so that her father can regain his vision.
Rice played a vital role in the nation’s not-too-distant past as well, serving as a form of currency.
Businessmen, for instance, once received sacks of rice in lieu of cash when it came to salary, which was a common practice during the 1970s. For many Koreans at the time, daily meals consisted of white rice and a beef broth, and locals also used it as fertilizer and stuffed pillows with it.
No easy fix
Those days, however, are long gone.
Although rice is still a foundation of many Korean dishes, more locals - particularly children and younger generations - are incorporating cuisine from other countries as part of their daily diets.
This year, in fact, rice cultivation in Korea actually contracted 1.2 percent from 2008.
The government is spending large sums of money to help Korean farmers evolve and adjust to the changes, but so far many of its actions have been met with criticism.
The problem, some observers say, is that the issue can’t be solved right away. In other words, balancing the need to grow the economy, sustain the livelihood of farmers and supply the types of food people want in the modern world is an ongoing struggle.
So farmers are taking the issue into their own hands.
Some are tackling the problem by promoting the idea of “premium” rice grown here in Korea. The idea is that they can keep customers - and charge more - by offering a higher-quality product than overseas farmers importing rice here.
Other farmers are trying to revive demand by promoting rice wine and rice-based processed foods, with mixed results.
Jang, though, says the Korean government can truly help farmers by levying taxes on imported rice.
He points to Japan and Taiwan, which recently found themselves in a similar situation and created a tariff system for imported rice as a result, structuring it in a way so that it received approval from the World Trade Organization.
As a result of these moves, both countries were able to stem the flow of imported rice, which wound up costing twice as much as locally produced rice and therefore helped protect the local industry.
Jang predicts that if similar tariffs here aren’t implemented by 2014, roughly 12 percent of the rice consumed in Korea would be imported. “This will be a burden for future generations if we don’t act fast,” Jang said. “I hope farmers will think about the future of agriculture and ultimately decide as soon as possible on the issue of tariffs. Time is running out.”
By Na Hyeon-chul