[The Fountain] With rice, facts matter, not sentiment

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[The Fountain] With rice, facts matter, not sentiment

The author is an international news reporter for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Rice and meals are special to Koreans. In Korean greetings, they never fail to ask, “Did you eat?” or “Make sure to eat.” It was rice that made Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon step down in 2011.

At that time, he opposed universal free school meals. He put his seat at stake in the referendum that did not pass. He claimed that welfare should be selective as budgets are needed to improve school facilities, hire more foreign teachers and strengthen after-school programs to enhance public education. But Oh could not get over the obvious criticism, “You are being stingy about feeding children.”

Rice is a symbol of Korean identity. The distinction of rice was evident during the Uruguay Round in the 1990s. At that time, President Kim Young-sam advocated the principle of treating rice as an exception. “If our market opens to a grain of rice, I will step down from the presidency,” he said.

In the end, when the negotiations were concluded by delaying the opening of the Korean rice market for 10 years, the former president apologized to the public.

Despite this special attachment to rice, per capita rice consumption has been declining since the peak in 1970 with 136.4 kilograms (301 pounds). Last year, per-person consumption fell to 56.7 kilograms, down by more than half in 50 years.

Rice is already oversupplied seriously. According to a December 2022 report by the Korea Rural Economic Research Institute, its overproduction in 2030 will surpass 630,000 tons if the revision to the Grain Management Act goes into effect.

Globally, rice is a subject of reduction and improvement. Recently, the Economist pointed out that rice farming is the main culprit of the climate crisis by depleting soil oxygen and boosting methane-releasing bacteria.

The British magazine also pointed out that white rice is said to make people gain more weight and have less nutrition than bread and corn, causing diabetes and malnutrition.

The magazine suggested that it is urgent to improve rice farming practices by improving rice varieties and cutting subsidies to farmers.

Amid a plethora of judicial risks, Democratic Party Chair Lee Jae-myung pushed for the revision to the grain law mandating government purchase of a certain amount of surplus rice, the first bill he orchestrated as party leader to pass in the National Assembly. That touched on the sensitive subject of rice. After President Yoon Suk Yeol blocked it through his first exercise of presidential veto power, political circles are fiercely battling over the veto. Fueled by the Korean people’s attachment to rice, the battle will continue until the parliamentary elections next year.

The data point to the harmful effects of the overproduction of rice on climate change, the economy and the health of the people. It is time to stop an emotional approach to rice and judge it by numbers and data only.
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