[Viewpoint] Keeping the specter of famine at bay

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[Viewpoint] Keeping the specter of famine at bay

It was about a decade ago when the scary thought that we may one day face food shortages first crossed my mind. I had been traveling in China for a feature story on the country’s burgeoning economy, combing through southern coastal cities on the mainland for about 20 days. Every time I stopped at local restaurants for a bite to eat, I was stunned at the number of dishes the Chinese were able to stomach for a single meal. I thought these were some of the better-off regional places, and if the economic benefits are more equally spread out across the mainland, satisfying the hearty appetite of its population of 1.3 billion could end up draining global food stocks.

After I returned home, I started keeping close watch on the grain market. The country was flush with agricultural produce in those days, but the market soon showed unsettling signs. China started to import more food than it was exporting, and the United States announced that it would divert vast amounts of corn to produce ethanol under the renewable fuel standards. Supplies were also disrupted by unpredictable climate change. But from my studies on the global supply and demand of grain, I realized that it wasn’t food, fuel or China that threaten our dinner tables. It was us, or more accurately, our ridiculous food policy.

Our farming industry is now wholly dependent on rice, to the extent that we produce so much we have to throw the excess away. For other grain staples, we rely entirely on imports. Due to the influence of Western eating habits, however, Koreans now consume less rice and eat more meat. But domestic grain stocks are insufficient to feed livestock. U.S.-based Cargill and three other major agricultural companies and Japanese traders supply 70 percent of imported food stocks to Korea. The country ranks lowest among OECD members in terms of self-sufficiency, with a rate of 26 percent. Yet we still lack a major grain distributor, or any storage of grain stock or terminal overseas.

In its 2006 New Year’s series of features on “The World at Resources War,” the JoongAng Ilbo addressed this looming crisis in the fields of energy, natural resources and food. On the first two issues, many sympathized with the looming threat while questioning why food was on the list. Until then, we had not wanted for food for half a century. But it was not long before we realized the predicament we were in. Grain prices began to flounder and flour prices skyrocketed due to poor crop yields in 2008.

This year, the market has been roiled by the worst drought in half a century in the midwestern region of the U.S., which accounts for a substantial amount of the global harvest. Corn and soybean prices shot up to record highs and are causing serious food shortages and riots around the globe. The Group of 20 economies convened an emergency meeting to address the spiking food prices and global ramifications of this. Fears of “agflation,” or inflation sparked by volatility in food prices, have already hit our shores. The term agflation has become familiar and as much of a headache as inflation itself, because staple grains today not only feed humans and livestock, but also fill up petrol tanks in many countries. The food problem is increasingly becoming more of a menace.

Experts would have known about the dangers for a long time, yet no measures have been taken. Instead of action, the president promoted the consumption of noodles made out of rice instead of flour during the grain shortage. Instead of mapping out a new agricultural framework appropriate to the times, authorities spent time with their heads stuck in the proverbial sand.

They could have taken inspiration from Japan, which was also suffering a similar problem in terms of its food supply. Although the country is also highly dependent on imports, Japanese trading companies have been heading overseas since the 1980s in search of a more secure food supply, building storage dumps, terminals and production bases in overseas. It allowed large enterprises to jump into the farming industry and invested heavily in R&D in the agricultural field.

Local trading companies are slowly turning their eyes to grain distribution, and STX has secured a grain station in Washington. But the local farming industry is still mostly focused on rice production and remains overly protective of farmers. The global food industry is fast transforming as a strategic industry, while ours remains a primary sector devoid of strategic and technological investment.

The crisis is at our doorstep. We need to rethink our food industry. We must invest to upgrade the industry by securing technology to raise productivity, develop crop seeds to lessen dependence on foreign players, rationalize the farming production structure, institutionalize the industry and foster global players in agricultural distribution. Farmers should be as proud of their profession as white-collar workers.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Sunny Yang
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