Australia Welcomes Korean Investment in Agriculture

Korea Times | 06-08-2008

By Kim Se-jeong
Staff Reporter

Korea is a major crop importer but is feeling the chilling effects of soaring food prices worldwide.

Australian Ambassador to Seoul Peter Rowe said Australia is "open for investment" in its agricultural sector, especially from Korea.

"If Korea wants to invest in agriculture, Australia is open for business," he said in a recent interview with The Korea Times.

Korea's food sufficiency currently stands at 30 percent, sustained by a relatively higher rate of rice sufficiency. Wheat supply from domestic sources meets less than 1 percent of the nation's demand.

Supplies for grains other than rice depend almost entirely on foreign production. Korea is the fifth largest crop importer in the world.

In Asia, the food crisis has another name: "Silent tsunami." The Korean government has been feeling the shock from this "silent tsunami," and has been brainstorming to secure food sources to prevent a crisis.

Last month, President Lee Myung-bak announced plans to purchase land in Sudan for farming and officially asked the Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for cooperation during his visit to Korea.

Australia's potential as a future partner for Korea's food security isn't well known, despite its thriving economy and the increasing exchange of tourists and students between the two countries.

Already, Korea is a major importer of raw materials. Korea imports Australian coal, iron, crude oil and aluminum.

Korean companies invested almost $3 billion in Australia last year, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT). Yet, investments in Australia's agriculture sector were minimal.

Rowe said there is some Korean investment in macadamia nut farms, but for the most part, it's minimal.

Australia is a producer of wheat, barley, sugarcane and fruits, among other foods.

In 2005, it was the seventh largest wheat and barley producer in the world, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Australia is a vast country, with nearly 60 percent or 4.7 million square kilometers of the total land available, being used for primary productions like livestock grazing, dryland and irrigated agriculture.

Korea is also a major importer of Australian beef.

Starting in the 1970s, Australian beef has been on the dining tables of many Korean homes and restaurants. Last year, beef imports from Australia reached 147,631 tons, according to the National Veterinary Research Quarantine Service.

Asked about the controversy regarding U.S. beef, Rowe said everyone at the embassy, including himself, "as surprised by the intensity of the outcry."

He said he sympathizes with the United States, adding that the outcry has grown out of proportion relative to the reality.

He said he hoped the Korean beef market would get back to business as usual.

The ambassador said the absence of U.S. beef in Korea boosted Australian beef sales here, "getting people know the quality and safety of the Australian beef."

However Rowe added, "I am confident that even when U.S. beef returns, we will have a bigger place in the market than before."

Since the U.S. beef controversy first broke out in April, Korea's overall beef consumption has drastically declined.

"When U.S. beef returns, Australian, U.S. and "hanwoo" or Korean beef, can work toward increasing the size of the market," the ambassador said.

He pointed to how little beef Koreans eat compared to some other countries. "Korean only consumes an average of eight kilograms of beef a year. There is a lot more to eat.

The average Australian eats more than 25 kilograms, while an Argentine consumes more than 45 kilograms."

To help boost consumption, beef must be made more affordable, Rowe said.

He said beef in Korea is way too expensive and it's partly caused by high tariffs on Australian beef.

Noting that Korea imposes a 40-percent tariff on Australian beef, Rowe called for a free trade negotiation to begin soon between the two nations.

Free trade negotiation with Australia is still at an embryonic stage. Joint studies and roundtable discussions have taken place. But the real negotiation isn't set to begin yet.

"Australia wants to work together on that (free trade accord) and on completing it because it will open up the potential for trade for both sides," the ambassador said.

A veteran diplomat, Rowe has spent more than eight years in Korea. He said he enjoys living in the country, which has now almost become his second home.

He said he's especially satisfied with seeing Korean people become so familiar with Australia.

Australia is a close country geographically, with a small time difference. Its vast land and natural beauty allures Korean tourists, he said.

Australia is one of the top destinations for Korean students who pursue an overseas education or a temporary work holiday program.

Korean students rank third in the number of international students enrolled at Australian academic institutions.

They also constitute one of the largest groups applying for working holiday visas.

One hope for Rowe is to see Korea get more exposure and publicity in Australia.

"I'd like to see Koreans promote Korea in Australia. People don't know there are direct flights to Korea. I want to see more Australian students in Korea," he said.

"But that's for the Korea government to do. I can't do that job."

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