[Free Trade Agreements] Food is Not a Commodity


On January 21, Hwang Jeong eun, General Secretary of the International Strategy Center, interviewed Kim-Hwang Kyeongsan, General Secretary of the Korean Woman Peasants’ Association and interviewed her about the government’s recent rice policy that hurts rice farmers and impacts Korea’s food sovereignty. Can you explain the opening of the rice market from the 1994 Agreement on Agriculture to the current 513% tariff on rice?

In 1994, Korean farmers fought against opening of the rice market. As a result, the opening of the rice market was postponed for 10 years. In its stead, a fixed amount of rice was imported as part of the minimum market access. Instead of tariffs, the quota system imported rice for domestic consumption increasing annually from 1-4%. Ten years later in 2004, in response to farmers opposition to opening the rice market, the government renegotiated and postponed tarrification (replacing quotas with tariffs) opting for an annually increasing minimum market access. In 2014, when the next extension period ended, the government entered negotiations and opened the rice markets. The government responded to farmers’ fierce opposition stating that the quantity of rice entering through the minimum market access would be too great and that opening the market and setting high tariffs would be better. After holding only one public hearing in June 2014, the government officially opened the rice market, announced a 513% tariff, and submitted revised concessions to the WTO on September 18. The United States along with 5 other countries submitted objections and their own tariff rates. Even though the rice market was fully opened, the government continues to import rice through minimum market access. It is rice outside of the minimum market access that is subject to the 513% tariff.

Despite the current excess rice production, the government decided to import additional rice last December. Why did it do this?

Farmers also couldn’t understand why. There was no justification for the import of additional rice, when domestic production was sufficient to meet the demand and the rice price was plummeting. After announcing the full opening of the rice market, when it submitted its plan for the tariffication and opening of the rice market, the government deleted the provision on the mandatory import of table rice (i.e. rice for direct consumption without processing into another food product). In 2015, the government didn’t need to import rice. However, the import of rice for direct consumption and government policies make rice producers wonder if they should keep on planting rice, if they could keep making a living by farming rice. In this way, the government’s policies are weakening the foundations of South Korea’s food self sufficiency. Rice, which had been at 100% self sufficiency, fell to 80% in 2010. The government states that “to preserve the 513% tariff rate, we have to import table rice. There is a demand by Korean people for it.” However, this just reveals how the government’s stance of protecting domestic rice production with a 513% tariff rate is just talk.

At the end of 2015, the government announced measures that would ensure the mid-to-long term rice supply and demand stabilization stating that this would stabilize the rice market. However, the KWPA and other farmer organizations have been very critical of these measures. Why?

The content of the “mid-to-long term rice supply and demand stabilization that the government announced on December 30 contains the “appropriate” production of rice and the restructuring of the direct payment system. The statement “must produce the appropriate amount of rice” must be read as “reducing production of rice.” This means that domestic production will be decreased for domestic supply and demand and be  supplemented with imported rice. South Korea’s 20-25% self-sufficiency is not stable. It is only because of stable rice production that we have not been impacted so severely by food crises. Without rice, our food self-sufficiency rate would be just 3-5%. That means that when food exports are suspended in the future due to a food crisis or climate change, Korea will face a supply problem. In addition, in order to promote an appropriate amount of rice production, the government is talking about promoting the conversion of rice paddies into fields for other crops. They are destroying the foundation for stable food self-sufficiency.

In the current rice direct payment program, there is the fixed direct payment system (a fixed payment of 1 million won) and a variable direct payment system (if the average rice price after the harvest falls below the government target price of 188,000 won, then the government covers 85% of the difference). Some academic experts say that the reason why so much rice is produced is an excess in the government’s fixed payment system. Based on these opinions, the government has announced measures to restructure the fixed payment system. In other words, the measures will destroy rice farming by decreasing the fixed payment system and thus reducing rice production. However, according to the paper “The Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Analysis of Climate Change Impacts and Model of its Impact,” at the current rate of climate change, the 83.1% rice self-sufficiency rate in 2010 will drop to 47.3% by 2050. These scenarios compounded by the government’s policy of reducing rice production and its nonexistent measures against food crisis makes the government’s proposals unacceptable.

Farmers have fought against the inclusion of agricultural goods in free trade agreements chanting “food is not a commodity.” What are farmers’ demands given the ongoing opening of the agricultural market?

We completely oppose the WTO and FTAs in principle. We demand the dismantlement of a WTO that treats our food like commodities. We oppose the import of agricultural products that can be produced domestically simply to depress prices and which erode the foundations of domestic agriculture. We are not opposed to trade. We just think trade has to based on mutual respect and reciprocity.  Trade in goods that are unavailable domestically is necessary. Despite the strong opposition against the WTO and FTA in the name of free trade that is hurting people, the government carries out indiscriminate and dogmatic agreements.

That’s why it is necessary to secure conditions for farmers to make agriculture sustainable. During all this time, the government has simply focused on its export driven industrial production and failed to implement policies that safeguarded agriculture. By promoting the WTO and FTAs and failing to create measures that address their damage, the government has pushed agriculture into a deeper crisis. As if the WTO and FTAs were not enough, the government is pushing for membership in the TPPA [Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement], thus adding to the list of conditions destroying agriculture. If farmers were bore down by one burden before, now, they are bore down by countless more as they attempt to farm.

What is food sovereignty? Why is it important to preserve it? How can we accomplish it?

Food sovereignty is the right of people to directly participate and decide their food policy. In a nutshell, it is the right that all those that eat participate in decisions around their food and can realize their needs instead of the government unilaterally deciding for them. Food sovereignty materializes in the stable supply of safe food.

Food sovereignty means that we must be able to guard the food that gives us the strength and energy necessary to lead our lives: Life can’t exist without food. In order to guard this, we must practice the consumption of domestic agricultural goods, of local food, of seasonal food. Fundamentally, we need to provide education about food and agriculture.