Monday, November 15, 2004

My last word on Rice...for a while

I am not sure why I comment on Korea's rice issues. Am I simply searching for material? Do I somehow think that the total of one week's work on Canadian farms and two weeks work on a Korean farm make me someone worth listening to? Should you care, I am not really asking; just pointing out my background in the field is pretty weak.

I thought I would start out with the WTO. Does anybody really like these guys? For some reason, the world chose to have a World Trade monitoring body and then ignores and fights everything that they say. It's not even a case of the established members of the club hazing new members, and prying open their markets. In a previous post about Korean rice and the WTO, I asserted that the US used stall tactics for years in it's WTO dealings but offered no cites. Here are two (here and there), discussing the US/Canada lumber dispute, being argued in the WTO and NAFTA. As any red-blooded Canadian would see it, the US is using these bodies to kill the Canadian lumber industry. I don't actually know if that is true.

The US suddenly has a ridiculous new WTO problem. Antigua wants it's online casinos opened to the US and the WTO agrees. According to the MSNBC article, about 5% of Atigua's population are employed by online casinos. That's crazy. I can understand some industries having open access, notably automotive, electronic and the like. I can barely accept that even staple industries like rice can be affected by the WTO but gambling? I don't know how much of a moralist I am, but as gambling both is restricted by and supporting (Bingo!) organized religion in America, it would seem to be more of a moral than an economic issue, even if it is a huge economic issue.

I will next note Korea's attempt to connect their rice import policy with their US beef import policy. I guess they would accept American beef if they didn't have to accept American rice. The Americans didn't play ball and I'm glad. I hope that when Korea accepts US beef, it's because it's safe, not because it protects their rice. In making the offer, though, did the Koreans imply that their continued ban on beef was motivated by politics rather than quarantine? And in making the offer, have they as good as admitted that US beef is acceptable and 'safe enough', whatever that means?

Back to Korea and it's rice woes.

The Joongang Daily just finished a series of five articles looking at Korean rice and farming. In all the articles I have read, 'Korean rice is about four times more expensive than imports mainly due to small-scale, inefficient farming and high production costs' (This quote actually from the Korea Herald).

The main suggestions given are to organize, improve quality and sell 'upscale', to increase farm size and to combine tourism (and here) with farming. It seems to me that increasing quality and farm size are conflicting plans but I don't know.

Rice on my father-in-laws farm starts in the greenhouse growing as thick as sod. It is then transferred to a paddy planted by a 'planting machine' (I don't know the more technical name) that makes the rows, about 15 cm apart and planting 3 metres wide at a time. The paddy needs weeding, I suppose, then it is harvested by a combine about the size of an SUV. The planting and harvesting could be done by larger machines for the same quality but I don't know about in-greenhouse growth and the weeding.

As for the tourism, Korean farmers have moved from ox-powered farming to highly mechanized farming in a single generation. Actually, I have seen a field plowed by an ox in Son-yang, the village next to mine in Gangwondo. The problem, as I have seen it, is they are still coming to grips with a disposable culture. I don't know what kind of containers held food or makkoli (Traditional alcohol) 40 years ago but they were either kept and protected or they were easily biodegradable. There are a lot of plastic and glass bottles surrounding rice fields these days and used plastic or vinyl sheets used to cover the vegetable crops are left hanging in trees and alongside the roads. I think many tourists would be horrified. For environmental reasons as much as those concerning the viability of Korean farms, I would like to see farm tourism.

WorldWatch, an NGO based in Washington DC has some articles promoting supporting local farms and against factory farming. The main relevant point I found was that in concentrating food growth, their is greater risk of disease and destruction of the crops and those consuming them.

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