[Viewpoint] Who’s killing our farmers?

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[Viewpoint] Who’s killing our farmers?

It’s erroneous to consider Karl Marx, who encouraged class revolution, as history’s cruelest economist. Compared to British scholar Thomas Malthus, for instance, Marx was very generous.

Malthus’ theory that “the population grows geometrically and the food supply grows arithmetically” is well known. The problem is his prescription. In order to avoid famine and poverty, Marx felt that “ethical restraint” was necessary. But Malthus himself did not believe in this concept.

He proposed a terrible alternative in his “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” arguing that alleys in cities should be made narrower to allow epidemics to spread more easily. Lakes by villages, he said, should be spoiled, and development of new medicine should be prevented.

In other words, Malthus believed that building a society that fosters death would help keep population levels under control.

In today’s world, Korea is producing way too much rice. This year, the domestic rice inventory is 1.4 million tons - roughly double the needed level. Storage areas are full, and unused rice supplies are rotting.

Last week, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries announced a clever idea. The government said it will use rice that’s more than five years old as animal feed.

Many Koreans, however, are not so comfortable with the idea. Naturally, people point out that there are 600,000 underprivileged children in the country that must skip meals for lack of food.

The Democratic Party attacked the idea, saying it ignores the fact that North Koreans are dying of starvation. Yet the nation is still mourning the loss of lives tied to the Cheonan tragedy, and it is too rash to discuss rice aid to the North at the moment.

There is no clear solution to this issue, and the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is now in an awkward position.

“Frankly, we are fighting against time,” confessed a ministry official privately.

He’s referring to statistics showing that more than 30 percent of the nation’s farming population is in their 70s, while roughly 35 percent is in their 60s.

The problem, in other words, will solve itself naturally when the elderly leave farming.

To put it nicely, these old farmers will be “weeded out” over time. In essence, that means they will have to die. It feels as if Malthus has returned from the grave.

Article 121 of the Constitution outlines the ownership structure of farming land. Korea is the only country in the world that technically allows only farmers to own such land. Along with the traditional philosophy that considers farmers as a fundamental part of the country, this ownership model is a key part of Korean culture as well.

But does this exclusive ownership structure actually protect farmers? Not at all. If a farmer tries to sell his fields, he won’t be able to find a buyer. Who, after all, would want to purchase farming land when all the capital is concentrated in the cities? Older farmers have been deprived of their last opportunity to exit the industry, as they can no longer sell their land at a decent price.

Moreover, the Roh Moo-hyun administration put shackles on farmers by imposing an additional 60 percent transfer tax on farming lands owned by non-locals. Demand for farming land, therefore, has dried up. The policy was enacted to prevent real estate speculation, but it is strangling farmers instead, limiting the potential buyer pool.

If an old farmer cannot sell his land, he has no choice but to pass it on to his children, who more often than not now live in the cities. About 40 percent of the nation’s farming land is currently owned by non-farmers, while about 80 percent of tenant farmlands are operating under illegal lease contracts.

So we must try to determine measures that will actually benefit farmers. The Constitution needs to be revised and the additional transfer tax should be removed to increase demand for farming land. The farmers themselves might have to protest to get the right to freely sell their property.

Japan experienced the same pains and wound up abandoning the exclusive ownership structure covering farming land. The law was revised to allow farmers, farming cooperatives and companies to own agricultural land. We must do the same if we want to enhance agricultural productivity and our international competitiveness. Large-scale corporate farming must be fostered in order to prevent the over-production of rice.

Japan examined the reality of the situation and abolished the exclusive ownership system. The Japanese government has built up confidence among the population, and some food producers have already utilized unused farming land to establish efficient systems of production, storage and consumption.

Government officials here, meanwhile, are waiting for older farmers to die out. Farmers are growing rice under the sizzling sun only to feed animals. Korean companies are buying acres of land abroad because they cannot expand their agricultural businesses in Korea.

These realities illustrate the crooked face of Korea’s agricultural industry. Malthus’ horrible proposal is becoming a reality in farming villages across Korea.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Lee Chul-ho
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