Food Crisis Looming Over Korea

Chosun Ilbo | 4 March 2008

The international food crisis prompted by smaller grain production and dwindling stockpiles of grains is also making things more difficult for Korea. According to predictions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the world will produce 29 million tons of grain less than estimated consumption this year, and the world's year-end stock-consumption ratio will drop to 14.6 percent, hitting an all-time low.

In addition, traditional grain producers such as Russia, Ukraine, China and Argentina are imposing restrictions on exports. As a result, the grain shortage has now become a food security issue for the population of 45 million in Korea, which relies heavily on grain imports. It is not the price of grain but its availability that matters for the Koreans -- it is becoming harder for Koreans to buy grain regardless of price.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommends that each country secure about 18 to 19 percent of its annual grain consumption for its year-end stock to ensure its country's food security. Unfortunately, as of 2007, the year-end stock ratios of Korea's major grains -- rice (13.7 percent), wheat (11.8 percent), corn (5.3 percent), and soybeans (10.6 percent) -- were far below the FAO recommended level. Korea relies on imports for most of its grain consumption, with its grain self-reliance ratios at a mere 0.2 percent (wheat), 0.8 percent (corn), and 13.6 percent (soybeans).

Kim Hwa-nyeon, a senior researcher at the Samsung Economic Research Institute, said, "If the global grain production shortage and export restrictions are protracted, it could pose a serious threat to our food security in the long term. We need to maintain grain self-reliance and stock ratios above certain levels by all available means including resource diplomacy."

To overcome the challenge, Korea has to cultivate food crops overseas and import them, or secure stable import sources. Japan has steadily prepared for food security by buying 12 million hectares of croplands around the world, from Southeast Asia and China to South America. Japan's overseas croplands are three times the size as on its mainland.

By comparison, the amount of Korea's overseas croplands is negligible. About 10 Korean private corporations or organizations have bought a few hundred thousand hectares of croplands abroad, including the Maritime Province of Siberia. But these are not enough to resolve the country's food shortage, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry said.

The government set up a taskforce to cope with soaring international grain prices as late as December last year, when they had already reached an all-time high. The only measures the government took at that time were easy ones, like alleviating the burden on livestock farmers. It took no basic measures to expand production or stable supplies.

The only measure the government took for more production of soybeans and wheat was to outsource research and development this year. The government established an Overseas Agricultural Development Forum as late as mid-February in an effort to cultivate croplands overseas. A government official admitted, "We're very late in preparations for stable production and supplies of grains."

Original source: Chosun Libo

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