[Viewpoint] Tackling food security worries

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[Viewpoint] Tackling food security worries

Worries about national food chains are surfacing on a scale unseen in the postwar era. While a stable food supply has always been a persistent problem in poorer countries, what is different now is that even developed economies are becoming more anxious about their food supply and how shortages elsewhere will affect their consumer spending power over the long term.

Today, rising inflation stemming from surging food prices is threatening the global economy. The price spiral is especially burdensome on poorer economies and we have already seen how it kindled national uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

Some may blame the inflation on over speculation by investors in futures markets or on high oil prices but the more fundamental explanation is demand outstripping supply. As emerging economies become richer, more meat is being eaten and that means greater demand for grain to feed livestock. China is the largest consumer of soybeans in the world. They feed livestock more than one-fourth of the world’s soybean crop. This trend will not abate quickly.

Adding to the pressure are worries about the future impact of global climate change. Weak harvests in Russia and Australia due to extreme weather contributed to the current strain on supplies and are seen as harbingers of the kind of trouble that may hit major grain producers more and more.

These factors belie the long-held perception that unlike energy, food would always be plentiful. Now, there is a creeping unease worldwide that food may not be as readily available as in the past. Against this backdrop, food security has become a major issue among many nations. They are ramping up their own production and are securing stable supplies. At the extreme, they are resorting to trade protectionism, as seen last year when Russia and the Ukraine suspended grain exports when they suffered a record drought.

Korea has reason to worry, too. Its food self-sufficiency rate is the lowest among OECD countries. Korea consumes 19-million tons of grains a year, nearly three-fourths of it imported. Excluding rice, which Korea produces, practically all of the nation’s corn, wheat and soybeans come from abroad.

The Korean government has made efforts to meet quantitative targets such as the food self-sufficiency rate, but the rate is falling due to the declining global competitiveness of the farm sector and a further opening to food imports.

Going forward, nominal increases in domestic harvests will not be the only concern for the government. In recent years, public awareness about food safety and environmental impact has risen. Avian influenza, foot-and-mouth disease, the culling of millions of farm animals and now fears of radiation in Japanese food imports leave a lasting impression.

Samsung Economic Research Institute’s Food Security and Safety Index showed a peak in 2006 and a rapid fall to its record low in 2008. The index takes into account both quantitative and qualitative aspects. It is based on Korea’s quantitative securing of food as well as the capability of domestic supply of food, security in imports, environment-friendliness and food safety.

The 2008 low was due to surging volatility in international grain prices, increasing dependence on certain countries for imports and an increase in imports of genetically modified food. Both security and safety of food worsened, with the latter deteriorating more. This means that the government’s focus on increasing food supplies may lead to weakened qualitative oversight and attendant harm to public health, environmental harm and weakened import security.

Food security can be achieved through the domestic production of food and improvement of the sector’s health structure, as well as securing an overseas food production base. To improve the food import mix, the Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corporation set up a consortium with private companies at the end of 2010 to build a food production base abroad. Although there have been efforts to build grain farms overseas by Korean private companies and organizations, they fail to satisfy the nation’s need.

Meanwhile, food safety should be secured by producing food in an environment-friendly way, while systemically managing natural resources to secure sustainability. Food inspection is required to deliver safe food.

SERI is proposing the creation of THE Food project. “THE Food” stands for tasty, healthy and environmentally-friendly food. This project is a conceptual campaign to raise Korea’s food security and safety. It refers to securing an advanced food chain from production and distribution to consumption for provision of quality and quantity food to the public.

Long-term targets and a concrete road map will be needed as well as national and social consensus.

*The writer is a research fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute.

By Park Hwan-il
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