The time has come! It is time to celebrate one of the most significant holidays of Korea, Chuseok. Everyone is especially looking forward to Chuseok this year because it will last five days, which is a fairly long period for the holiday break. The genuine meaning of Chuseok is to get together with family members and eat colorful songpyeon, rice cakes filled with beans and nuts, to celebrate the harvest. However, it is doubtful whether Koreans can gladly celebrate this national holiday when Korea’s overall food self-sufficiency is extremely low, to such an extent that the country heavily depends on foreign imports for supplementing nourishment.
Korea’s rapid economic development enabled its people to enjoy a higher standard of living through material affluence. The Korean government’s export driven policies facilitated this development process— a process in which it exported billions of dollars worth of domestically produced cars and electronic products in place of agriculture. Korean agriculture suffered as it was faced with a more competitive world market. As a result, Korean agriculture lost out while other industries boomed.
Korea’s food self-sufficiency has become so low that now it relies heavily on imported goods, making it susceptible to changes in the world food economy. If there is a rise in world food prices or if major food supplying countries decide not to export food for some reason, Korea will suffer the consequences. Therefore, it is extremely important for Korea to restore its food self-sufficiency. After all, what is the use of economic prosperity if the country does not have the ability to provide food for its citizens?
The Food Situation in Korea
According to Precondition for an Advanced Country, Food Self-sufficiency (2014, professor Lee Cherl-Ho), Korea’s self-sufficiency rate for grain was 80.5 percent in the 1970s—it supplied 15 percent of wheat, 86 percent of beans and 93 percent of rice. However, as the demand for meat and milk increased in the mid-1970s, Korea had to import more feed grains. Consequently, the overall self-sufficiency rate for grains fell to 56 percent by the 1980s. Furthermore, when the launch of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 encouraged free trade, Korea’s self-sufficiency rate for grain dropped to 29 percent. Ever since, the self-sufficiency rate for grain has shown a declining trend: 24.3 percent in 2011, 23.7 percent in 2012, 23.3 percent in 2013, 24.0 percent in 2014, and 23.8 percent in 2015.
▲ Korea’s self-sufficiency rate for food and and grains, 2009-14. Provided by Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
▲ Professor Yang Seung-Rhyong talks about importance of food security. Photographed by Lee Hye Min.
Currently, Korea needs to import more than three-fourths of its food to satisfy the demands of Korean consumers. According to professor Yang Seung-Ryong (Department of Food and Resource Economics), various solutions were proposed to increase food security, yet they were all constrained by the WTO Agreement on Agriculture (AoA). In this regard, Korea does not have much power over food sovereignty—the right of nations to control their own food systems such as the way food is produced, traded and consumed.
“The Korean government should be able to subsidize farmers so that more food can be produced and supplied within the country, but WTO is preventing this from happening,” said professor Yang. If governments of importing countries support their agriculture sectors and increase domestic food production, exporting countries will be hurt. “Ostensibly, WTO’s main goal is to ensure free trade. However, it is actually more concerned about protecting exporting countries’ profits,” continued professor Yang. To make matters worse, Korea has signed free trade agreements (FTA) with many trading partners such as the United States (U.S.), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU).
Unsurprisingly, agriculture is not a profitable business in Korea. In order for farmers to stay in business, farmers must be able to pay for the cost of production and enjoy some remaining revenue. In Korea, however, production costs are on the rise while food prices continue to fall. As import liberalization flooded the market with cheaper food from all over the world, Korean farmers had to lower their food prices to compete with foreign producers. Since then, farm incomes have been severely depressed. “We have sufficient land for agriculture, but not many people are willing to farm anymore. Land is either left fallow or used for different purposes,” said professor Yang.
Worldwide Increases in Food Prices
Currently, international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and developing countries that lack food are deeply concerned about an impending global food crisis. When world food prices soared in 2007 and 2008, numerous scholars said that the increase in the price of food was a temporary phenomenon. The price spikes that have occurred in the past have always stabilized over time. However, the price increases that began in 2007 have continued.
▲ Drought spreading across the world. Provided by offthegridnews.com
There are several reasons for that. The first is global warming, which has been the cause of abnormal weather changes. Changes in the frequency and severity of droughts and floods have made it more difficult for farmers to grow crops. By the late 21st century, this could lead to a 0.6 to 0.9 percent decrease in overall world food production. “The world population is expected to reach nine billion by the 2080s. How are we going to support all these people?” said professor Lee Cherl-Ho (Chairman of the Korea Food Security Research Foundation, Emeritus Professor at Korea University).
▲ China’s increasing demand for meat. Provided by telegraph.co.uk
Second, economic growth in newly industrialized countries (NIC) has led these countries to consume more animal by-products. Subsequently, the demand for feed grains that are needed to produce such products has also increased. China and India are the two most populated countries and together possess more than one-third of the world population. Thanks to their growing economies, Chinese and Indians are consuming more beef, poultry and dairy products than before. “If Chinese and Indians start to consume as much meat and milk as the people in the developed countries, grain will be in short supply, even if all the available grain in the world is directed toward China and India,” said professor Lee.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures show a decrease in China’s net trade in grains from 2000 to 2014. From the late 1990s to 2007, China was a net exporter of cereal grains, especially corn. Since 2008, however, China has regularly imported grains and by 2012, China imported all sorts of grains. Rice, wheat, barley, corn, sorghum and distillers' dried grains (DDGS) were imported to meet Chinese demand. Total net imports of grains reached 24 million metric tons in 2014. If this trend continues, world grain prices will rise even higher.
▲ Figure of China’s net trade in grains, 2000-14. Provided by USDA.
Increased grain demand due to biofuel production has also contributed price increases. This was triggered by the U.S. in 2007 when it started to utilize corn for the purpose of mass producing biofuels. As a result, 100 million tons of corn, which corresponds to 30 percent of U.S. corn production, were used to produce biofuels. The U.S. is a major corn supplier responsible for supplying 57 percent of the corn traded in the world, and its decision to use corn to produce biofuels and biodiesels has significantly reduced the amount of corn available for people to consume.
▲ Color-cartoon drawn by Chappatte to illustrate the problem of increasing use of biofuel upon food shortage. Provided by euro-meeting.blogspot.kr
The Need for a Change
Even though Korea is not agriculturally self-sufficient and world food prices continue to increase, many people do not seem to care about food security. They may argue that it hardly matters whether a country can grow the food it needs as long as it can acquire the food it needs, which Korea can. However, these people overlook one important possibility; what if Korea's access to food is restricted?
The demand for food is on a continual rise. More importantly, major food exporting countries could decide to control the food they export. Just like how Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) restrict supply in an attempt to drive up the price of oil, some countries may form an organization like OPEC and control the amount of wheat that can be exported. Similar plans have been brought up in the U.S. and Canada from time to time. If these proposals are put into action, a food war would only be a matter of time. Korea would be left helpless, and money would be no use.
“Korea recognized the importance of food security only in the late 1990s. Developed countries had already taken all the good fertile farmlands, leaving Korea with small overseas farms,” explained professor Yang. Japan, on the other hand, actively advanced into foreign markets in the 1970s and 80s, which enabled it to acquire big overseas farms in East Asia and South America, and establish a strong pipeline of foreign crops. “Japan has a lower self-sufficiency rate than Korea, but it is a country of high food sovereignty,” said professor Lee.
Finally, Korea is technically still in a state of war with North Korea. In a war, food would be one of the most important issues facing the country. Although Korea expects to receive aids from its allies, there are no guarantees. There may be difficulties in the process of procuring food, which would pose a major threat to the country.
All in all, the need for Korea to effectively enhance its food security is obvious. Food is directly associated with the survival of the nation.
▲ Yemen citizens fighting for scarce food. Provided by theatlantic.com
Efforts to Secure Foods
In order to raise Korea’s self-sufficiency rate and strengthen its agricultural force, efforts for technical, as well as systematic, enhancements are required. To begin with, developing genetically modified organisms (GMO) has been suggested as a method of empowering Korean agriculture. GMOs became widely acknowledged at the end of 20th century as environmentally friendly, economically efficient, and withholding strong resistance to harmful pesticides.
Although Korea is already one of the largest consumer of GMOs in the world, it has not cultivated any GMO crops on its own farmlands. All GMO products have been imported. The Korean Rural Development Administration (RDA) has recently begun to cultivate 10 genetically modified species in seven different regions as an experiment. While large transnational seed companies, such as Monsanto, own GMO intellectual properties, Korea is just starting to develop GMOs.
▲ Protests for labeling GMOs. Provided by grist.files.wordpress.com
Proponents of GMO cultivations, such as professor Lee, claim that the safety of GMOs currently on the market has been approved and must not be questioned. Yet, before Korea moves on to developing and producing GMOs, opponents in various social sectors—mostly civil societies like Greenpeace—have posed concerns with regards to the safety of GMOs. Professor Yang said, “It is hard to say that GMOs are completely safe. Since we cannot ban the distribution and production of GMOs completely, a strict policy of GMO labeling must be implemented, in order to leave room for the consumers to decide.”
Other efforts are being made to modernize farming and revive rural communities. One solution that has been suggested is Smart Farming, a method of farming which engrafts scientific technologies or information and communications technology (ICT) onto agricultural techniques. Smart Farming could bring a new vitality to rural farming, currently suffering from a small labor force due to the aging trend for Korean farmers.
KT Corporation, one of the largest telecommunications company in Korea, built a GIGAtopia in 2014, on Imja Island, Shinan-gun. The island was transformed into a smart community, where a highspeed internet network dominates every part of human life. As a part of the project, KT introduced Smart Farming, enabling farmers to control the growing environments of their greenhouses automatically. The project reduced the labor needed and raised the growing efficiency, showing signs of improving the local economy of isolated areas.
Thus, the government is expanding its support of Smart Farming, considering it one of the major policies for accomplishing the Creative Economy of the Park administration. According to research conducted by the RDA and Knowledge Works in 2015, investments in Smart Farming rose by 11 percent every year on average from 2009 to 2013. The total amount invested during this period was 125.7 billion won.
▲ Professor Lee Cherl-Ho talking about the safety of GMOs. Photographed by Lee Hye Min.
The use of remote controls to monitor and regulate agricultural facilities from a distance has been successful in ranching and horticultural farming, which need close observation and care. However, professor Rhee Joongyong (Biosystems Engineering, Seoul National University) pointed out some serious limits regarding it. “Smart Farming in Korea is centered solely on improving convenience for the farmers, neglecting to create value-added plants and their business,” he said.
In addition, professor Rhee also cast doubts on the practicality of Smart Farming for small-hold and agronomical farmers. When they try to introduce Smart Farming into their fields, their net profit drops to nearly zero because of the high-cost of maintaining the high-tech devices. So while he hesitated regarding a direct relationship between popularizing Smart Farming and improving the food security situation in Korea, he asserted that Smart Farming could improve farmers' quality of life by giving them more time for leisure and reducing the amount of physical work required for farming. This could attract more youths into rural communities and vitalize the agricultural industry of Korea.
All these attempts for technological enhancements cannot become a reality without sufficient improvements in the conditions for farmers. One reason why agriculture is diminishing in Korea has been because of the ill treatment of farmers and their poor living conditions. In order to foster economic development, the price of crops has been kept low. As food price is one of the primary deciding factor for wage, the government arbitrarily adjusted it, worsening the status of farmers.
The influx of cheap products from foreign countries is another factor which lowers the price of agricultural goods and degrades the livelihood of farmers. As mentioned before, the launch of the WTO and Korea signing multiple FTAs with countries whose strength lies in agriculture hurt Korean agriculture and made it more vulnerable to outside forces.
▲ Chicago Board of Trade. Provided by cdn.modernfarmer.com
The WTO AoA requires member states to reduce subsidies to domestic farmers and assistance for the export of agricultural goods. Thus, any policy implemented by the government, which was aimed to subsidize domestic agriculture, was criticized for being insufficient and superficial. According to a report written by the Korea Farmers and Fishermen News, the direct payment of the government accounted for only 3.9 percent of the total incomes of farming families in 2015. Most of the payments were unequally distributed, concentrated on farmers producing rice.
The Korean agriculture cannot be sustained when the farmers, who people depend on, are not fully compensated. They have been left behind in Korea's rush to develop and industrialize. Many rural communities have asked for a government purchase system for staple crops, requiring the government to buy such crops at a regulated price to stabilize their production and supply. However, many are concerned about so much government interference in the market.
Still, the Korean government should seek solutions to its farming dilemma. Careful negotiations on FTAs can help protect Korean agriculture. Indeed, Korea negotiated a grace period on the tariffs on rice in a WTO agreement, mitigating the shock that the farmers would experience if the market suddenly opened. Additionally, instead of providing direct subsidies to farmers, which violate the WTO agreement, the government can utilize indirect methods of revival, such as enhancing the amenities of rural villages and improving the social welfare system for farmers.
▲ Farmers of Imja Island utilizing smart devices. Provided by blog.kt.com
Beyond the expansion of domestic cultivation, more efforts to procure crops in the global market and increasing accessibility to such crops are needed to guarantee the food security of Korea. Currently, even though Korea has the financial resources to feed its people, Korea is unable to secure access. It needs to purchase food from major global corporations, such as Cargill, or Japanese agents.
Although Japan has one of the lowest self-sufficiency rates among developed countries, it is able to obtain what it needs. For more than 20 years, the Japanese government has made efforts to be a player on the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), the oldest and the largest futures exchange in the U.S. Korea has been comparatively slow in establishing a position in the global market. “Korea needs to increase its ability to procure food from the global market by trading with semi-major corporations and pioneering its own distribution channels. This cannot be completed in a short time,” said professor Yang.
Securing Food on Our Dining Tables
The issue of food security is a threat to all humans. The word food, which is defined as “Any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth” in the Oxford Dictionary, can also mean profits and political influence.
It is time Koreans took an interest of the issue food security. It is an important mission of Korea to enhance its ability to grow its own foods and to stably procure food from other countries. New policies and thinking are needed to pave the road toward food security.
▲ Korean traditional dining table. Provided by cfile5.uf.tistory.com