Rice is historyDespite a scorching drought in Chungcheong Province, Korea overall had a great rice harvest this year. Yet farmers and agricultural authorities are agonizing over a steep fall in rice prices. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs submitted next year’s budget to the National Assembly last Thursday. What attracts our attention is the size of the budget related to rice. As rice stocks under government control reach 1.37 million tons - the second largest amount in ten years - the cost for annual inventory management has exceeded a whopping 500 billion won ($438.4 million).
The increase in rice stocks stems from a continuing surplus in production created by plummeting demand. Even though the government tries to induce farmers to reduce the size of their rice farms, this year’s output is expected to increase by 2 percent compared to last year’s thanks to less damage from typhoons and floods.
The government plans to purchase an additional 200,000 tons of rice from farmers. We wonder if such a stopgap measure can address the growing plight of rice farmers. Some of them opt to plow under their entire crops even before harvesting out of frustration. Politicians and farmers proposed to provide North Korea rice aid, but that’s not easy due to complicated diplomatic problems involved.
Our new external environment after free trade deals with other countries also makes the future of our rice industry even darker. After our FTA with China is ratified in the legislature, the government must devise effective measures to guard against a massive influx of cheap Chinese agricultural produce other than rice. The time has come that the government cannot focus on subsidizing rice farmers anymore.
The government’s prescriptions based on subsidies to local farmers can hardly work with the new economic realities. It is time to radically change the existing paradigms for agricultural support. The government needs to make efforts to raise the competitiveness of our farm products by focusing on vegetables and fruits instead of rice.
To ratchet up competitiveness, the government must find ways to draw young people into the agricultural sector. When a young generation armed with unique expertise in information and communications technology enters agriculture, it can substantially raise the competitiveness of the industry. To achieve that goal, the government must find a way to use existing farmlands as a springboard for processing diverse local agricultural products as well as a logistics business.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 3, Page 34