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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Minister Seeks to Turn Farming Into Export Industry

Soon after taking office in August, Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Chang Tae-pyong presented a new goal ― to achieve $10 billion in exports of farm and marine products by 2012, more than doubling last year's $4.2 billion.

"Many say it doesn't seem plausible, but I think it's possible," the minister said. "Of the exports so far this year, unprocessed farm products topped $600 million, unprocessed marine products $1.2 billion and processed food $1.9 billion. And the key lies in processed food,'' he said in an exclusive interview with The Korea Times Tuesday at his office in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Provice, on the occasion of the 58th anniversary of the daily, which falls on Nov. 1.

"It is all about technology. It is the role of technology to make better ingredients, or even additives, for food. With better technology, it will also be possible to export processed materials made of imported ingredients. It is all about how to add value, and how to efficiently do it," Chang said.

Exporting is important because it creates more demand for farm and marine products, helping farmers and fishermen to earn more income, according to the minister.

"For example, this year saw a bumper harvest of cucumber. However, it only ended up halving its price, forcing farmers to scrap a lot of their harvest," Chang said.
Korean farmers need to export more, he said. "Cucumber is one of the most popular vegetables in the world. Expanding exports could prevent such a pitiful occasion."

For more exports, farmers need to change their point of view in an "innovative" way, the minister said, because each market has a different standard of favored products and it is important to produce what consumers want in specific markets.

"Up to now, farmers have just raised pigs. Now they need to know their main work is to supply pork for the market. In other words, agriculture is about providing consumers with ingredients they need," he said.

This offers a valuable cue to what is in Chang's mind. Farming and fishing are another form of manufacturing industry. And he didn't deny it.

"All farmers are CEOs of their own business," the official said. "Agriculture is no different from the manufacturing of products in plants, that's what I believe. Science and technology should occupy more room in agricultural management."

So, inevitably, it all comes back to one word ― productivity.

"Market competition is essential," he said. "Because competitors are everywhere, even outside Korea. At the same quality, prices should be competitive. In that regard, farmers need to make process innovation as other manufacturers do at factories.

"With the same budget, farmers can produce more by cutting expenses in each step of their work process, like plant managers do for their work."

Productivity varies in Korean farming circles, Chang said.

In a survey of rice farmers last year, the most productive 20 percent produced nearly 3.5 times more rice than the least productive 20 percent on average. The gap grew from a 2004 survey, in which the top 20 percent of farmers produced 2.4 times more than the bottom 20 percent.

The principle is also applied to distribution of their products.

"In an exemplary case, a farmer is selling the rice he produced at three different prices according to quality. I can safely say he surely has the quality of being a good CEO," he said.

Chang started to refer to farmers as entrepreneurs back in 2004, creating the term "farming CEO." It was meant to introduce the concept of "business management" to local farmers, the minister said.

"I used to tell them: Each of you is a business owner, not hired staff. That means you have to make your own decision about production and sales," Chang said.

"It's about the way they use various resources they have.

The approach is also better for more exports, he added.

Currently Korean rice is about 3 or 4 times more expensive than foreign rice, but the price can be more than halved to an exportable level, through productive farming and adoption of quality species.

Korean ``hanwoo'' can also be exported through quality innovation and productivity enhancement like Japan's beef, Chang added.

The first thing he did since taking office was to meet local farmers every weekend. There, he saw pain, but also signs of hope.

"Even though an influx of imported products and rising prices of oil and feed have hit farming households, many farmers are doing their utmost to be more competitive," he said.

Overall, it is still a serious problem that Korean farmers are unequal in production, and, strictly speaking, Korea's agricultural production is just 50 to 60 percent of that of the Netherlands. Chang, however, says it has enough potential to make a huge leap on the global stage.

"In the future, a lot of the minister's policies will be about hiking productivity like organizing households, developing advanced agricultural technologies and establishing more infrastructure in the farming village," the minister said.

Safety Matters

In no other time in our history have consumers here been so acute and sensitive about the safety of what they eat.

After the dangers of mad cow disease become the talk of the country following the resumption of U.S. beef imports, panic is now prevailing in the whole food industry due to melamine-tainted Chinese products.

Chang assured that food safety is his top priority.

"Safety is definitely the most important, and about half of the ministry's work is about monitoring food safety. The government is obliged to supply safe food to its people," he said.

The issue is also meaningful to globalize Korean food products, as exports will be impossible without securing safety, let alone being recognized as quality products, he added.

"I do understand a lot of people are still worried about U.S. beef," Chang said. "The government will closely monitor the whole process of its import and distribution. All restaurants must clearly identify the origin of ingredients they serve."

In July, the ministry set up comprehensive measures for food safety, which include establishing a preventive system and intensified import food control. Also, it plans to make it obligatory for food dealers to keep records of their transactions this year, before completing a food distribution tracking system by 2010.

An overhaul of the related system will be soon made, the minister said. Most importantly, a project is under way to integrate all safety controls for dairy, farming and marine products, all of which are separate at present.

There will be more roles for consumers under the new system. The government will encourage more civic engagement in supervision of food-related facilities and the labeling of the origin of food.

"Safety control is basically a matter of system, so it will take some time to make it full force. But all other measures available will be introduced as soon as possible, hopefully this year," Chang said.