By Lee Hyo-sik
Korea’s rice self-sufficiency rate has fallen to a 30-year low, ringing alarm bells over the nation’s deteriorating food security when international prices of wheat and other grains have skyrocketed as a result of bad harvests in the United States and other cereal exporters.
The country’s shrinking ability to meet its own rice needs is largely attributed to unfavorable weather conditions and diminishing farmland in line with the falling number of people engaging in agricultural activities.
According to the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries on Thursday, the nation’s self-sufficiency rate for rice stood at 83 percent in 2011, down sharply from 104.6 percent the previous year. The figure was the lowest since 1981, it said. This means Korea had to import rice from China and other countries to meet 17 percent of its rice consumption.
The sufficiency rate is calculated by dividing the amount of rice produced the previous year with consumption in the corresponding year.
Korean farmers produced 4.3 million tons of rice in 2010, down 621,000 tons from a year earlier. In contrast, rice consumption rose to 5.18 million tons from 4.71 million over the one-year period.
``In September 2010, Typhoon Gonpas hit the Korean Peninsula hard, causing severe damage to over 50,300 hectares of rice paddies. This significantly dampened rice production that year, on top of the continued dwindling of farmland over the years,’’ said an official at the ministry’s food policy division.
However, rice demand jumped as food companies introduced a wide range of snacks, beverages and other processed items using rice, he said.
The declining rice production also pushed Korea’s overall grain self sufficiency rate down to an all-time low last year. The rate stood at 22.6 percent in 2011, down from 27.6 percent the previous year.
Farmers here have cultivated smaller amounts of wheat, barley, potatoes and other crops. Korea imports over 90 percent of its grain needs, excluding rice, and has become more dependent on the United States and other cereal exporters year by year.
This year’s rice harvest will unlikely increase from 2011 as two consecutive typhoons _ Bolaven and Tembin _ damaged about 10 percent of the nation’s farmlands in August. From March to July, an extensive drought and higher-than-usual temperatures made it difficult for crops to grow.
Also, 7,018 hectares of farmlands, or 0.4 percent of the country’s arable land, were converted for residential or other purposes in the first six months of this year.
``It is hard to project whether the rice self-sufficiency rate will head upward this year and beyond because of weather conditions and other variables,’’ said Sung Myung-hwan, a director at the Korea Rural Economic Institute.
More typhoons are forecast to hit the Korean Peninsula in September and October, which will negatively affect rice production, Sung said. ``Additionally, the size of rice paddies will continue to shrink in the future. Given all these factors, the self-sufficiency rate is unlikely to rise.’’
쌀 자급률이 100% 아래로 추락했다. 곡물 자급률도 역대 최저치를 기록했다.
농림수산식품부가 5일 잠정 집계한 ‘국내 곡물 자급률 현황’에 따르면 지난해 쌀 자급률은 2010년 104.6%에서 21.6%포인트 감소한 83.0%를 기록, 흉년으로 쌀 자급률이 급락한 1981년 이후 최저치를 나타냈다.
이처럼 쌀 자급률이 추락한 데는 2010년 한반도를 강타한 태풍 곤파스의 영향과 지속적으로 경지 면적 감소가 주된 이유라는 게 농식품부 측 설명이다.
쌀 생산은 줄었지만 수요는 크게 늘었다. 2010년 쌀 생산량은 429만5000t으로 전년 대비 62만1000t 줄었다. 그러나 가공용 쌀에 대한 수요가 늘어나면서 2011년 쌀 소비량은 517만9000t을 기록했다. 이는 2010년보다 47만2000t 증가한 수치다.
쌀 자급률 하락은 곡물 자급률 추락으로 이어졌다. 2011년 곡물 자급률은 22.6%로 2010년 27.6%에서 5%포인트 떨어졌다.
곡물자급률의 경우 1997년부터 2010년까지 꾸준히 26~31%를 유지해왔으며 매년 변동폭은 1~2%포인트에 불과했다.
농식품부 관계자는 “정부 목표인 ‘2015년 전체 곡물 자급률 30%’ 달성을 위한 대책을 마련할 것”이라며 “쌀 자급률도 98%까지 맞추겠다”고 말했다.