Sunday, September 19, 2004

Rice, Rice, Rice, Rice, Rice, Rice, Rice, Rice, Rice...

When Korea joined the World Trade Organization, they had an exception for their rice industry. For several years, Korea was allowed to keep it's subsidies for local rice production. That period ended recently, or should have, or will soon once the appeals and delay tactics run out.

According to a friend, Korean farmers have been receiving subsidies equal to about 8 times the market value.

The Joongang Ilbo has an article on the subject.
From the article:

Despite inroads made by bread, burgers
and bakeries, most Koreans still feel a
persistent tug from their millennia-old
staple, rice. And although Korea is a
breathtakingly high-cost producer of
the grain, a mix of tradition, nationalism,
convictions that the soil makes a difference
in taste and some clever marketing have
put most Koreans behind government
efforts to stave off world trade requirements
to import rice.
Rice persists, in diets and in language. The
Korean language has a different word for
eating rice and eating other food, and there
are different words for raw and cooke
rice. A common polite greeting translates
as "Have you eaten rice?"

This article resonates strongly at home due to our connection with rice. My father-in-law is a Gyeongsang rice farmer (and a wonderful man who is very patient with his foreign son-in-law. This is not mere flattery- he'll never read this). My brother-in-law's email address starts with 'riceismylife@...' and I once complained about eating plain rice to hear the retort, "Rice is never plain" from my wife.

Go and buy some (Korean) rice now. Preferably from Gyeongsangnam-do.

So, rice, and the value of rice, is hugely important for my Korean family. What will the end of subsidies do?

Well, the price of rice will fall ("duh"). My big prediction is that land prices will drop, collapse, plummet. Kimhae and Kimpo rice fields (and home to two major airports) are adjacent to Seoul and Pusan, two huge and struggling-to-grow cities that are hunting for space to growth. If some of the Kimpo rice fields go on the market, Seoul can leave it's nibbled-at green zone alone.

As for my in-laws, mother- and father-in-law are aging and could possibly retire. They could give their eldest son a ten year warning: "Get married quick and buy a place with an extra bedroom for us." Unfortunately, this would lead to at least one case of insanity. The parents have been busy, heartbreakingly busy for their whole sixtyish years. I would love to see them take it easy but they couldn't be happy that way. No, they will work their farm, probably changing their crop ratios and selling a few fields but staying put and trying to remain self-sufficient.

I believe that most rice farmers are my in-laws age. The youth of Korea, and the world, are not interested in farming. What happens in Korea is happening to the world.

I am no economist. I understand the basics of free-trade but not how they can regulate how a country attempts to be self-sufficient. Staples like rice, and wheat should be controlled by the local governments not an international body. What happens if only three Asian countries are supplying rice for the rest of Asia? Is that possible?

I have one more prediction. Korea will find a way to make a new subsidy. It could be called 'disaster relief'. Last year Typhoon Maemi crashed through my in-laws farm and trashed all the crops, or most of them. They were eligible for some relief money. As I think about this, global warming will create more storms so this subsidy/relief may be more likely than not.

In his book, 'Eat the Rich' or possibly 'Parliament of Whores', P.J. O'Rourke talked about US farm and forestry subsidies. After 60-80 years of subsidies, he said there was no improvement in the lives of US farmers. You may not think O'Rourke is the best reporter to quote but he's the only one I've read on the subject, so get your own blog! Anyway, I started this post by mentioning stall and delay tactics and hunting for ways around the WTO directive. The US can do it, so maybe Korea can, too. One way or another, farming will continue to be a nasty, boring, exhausting business


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. Although rice doesn't touch my life the same way while living in Seoul, I can't ever leave a bowl half-eaten with my girlfriend around without her scolding me. Kind of funny, we'll be eating a nice meal of sam-gyeop-sal with 4-5 side dishes but it's most important that I finish my rice! I feel worse leaving the side dishes and meat. Sort of sad the way the small independent rice farmer is disappearing in South Korea.

GI Korea said...

I just happened to find your blog and I think it is great that some one from Gangwon-do is starting a blog. Your the only blogger from Gangwon-do I know of. So you have a unique monopoly in the Korean blogging universe to exploit. I love every chance I get to go to Kangwon-do. Your lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country.