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Urgent cooperation on food security should span Asia

Like the UAE, Korea is far from food self-sufficient. But as Korea learnt decades ago, food security, while a sovereign concern, can not be solved alone.

In a bid to improve its food self-sufficiency, the Republic of Korea initiated a green revolution in the 1970s, the so-called saemaeul woondong or "new village movement". The goal was simple. After years of war and constant famine, our nation needed to find solutions to persistent food insecurity.

The results have been remarkable. While early goals focused on expanding agricultural infrastructure, building roads and distributing seeds, Seoul has managed to achieve a level of self-sufficiency in rice production, our staple crop. Profits are up, and more food is grown in the country than at any time in the last four decades.

Nevertheless, Korea is far from food self-sufficient. Korean farmers are only able to produce around 9 per cent of soybeans, and less than 1 per cent of the wheat and maize needed for domestic consumption. Korea has made continuous efforts to increase local production, promote rational eating such as consumption of appropriate amount of calories, and lessen food waste.

The UAE faces similar challenges. While circumstances leading to the UAE's food dependency are different from Korea's, this country is also far from achieving self-sufficiency in food production. The UAE Ministry of Economy estimates that about 85 per cent of the UAE's total food consumption depends on imports. Food consumption, meanwhile, is growing at an annual rate of 12 per cent due to rising population fueled by economic growth.

Like the UAE, Korea is suffering a shortage of land with only 1.78 million hectares of agricultural area. To address these physical constraints, in 2009 the government in Seoul launched an overseas agriculture development programme aimed at securing 1.4 million tonnes - about 10 per cent of domestic consumption - of overseas grains such as corn, wheat, and soybean.

As a result, Korea secured 55,000 tonnes of overseas grain in 2010. Meanwhile, the Korea Rural Community Corporation (KRC) has supported companies with information and data on overseas agriculture businesses. As a public corporation that has promoted agricultural water management and domestic food security for more than 100 years, the KRC has led modernisation of domestic infrastructure for agricultural production to ensure a stable food supply.

Since 1972, it has been contributing to global food security and rural development with water resource development projects as well as rural development projects in 24 countries including Angola, Tanzania, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

The challenges the UAE faces are similar to Korea's. And as we learnt decades ago, food security, while a sovereign concern, can not be solved alone.

Indeed, food insecurity may deepen political and social unrest, with the famine in East Africa an urgent example. Countries in the region and around the world have been harnessing all of their available resources to prepare countermeasures. A recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) dialogue noted that the world is facing three unprecedented realities on the food security front: deficiency of arable land, water shortages and the slow pace of research. More work is clearly required to find solutions, and greater cooperative programmes should be an immediate priority.

There are immediate as well as long-term ways to do this. For one, there is a desperate need for precise market data such as stock volumes so that market participants can make decisions based on need. Importing nations are also vulnerable to price volatility - the G20 nations recently announced plans to control price swings in markets. What are needed are financial instruments to support importing nations.

Finally, there should be schemes to rein in excessive export restrictions. Some restrictions that might have a huge effect on global grain markets such as embargoes should be imposed only in close consultation with the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation and other relevant international organisations.

The UAE is already taking steps to address its own food security challenges. Federal officials in Abu Dhabi are drawing up several policies to address food insecurity: building strategic food reserves; abolishing exclusive importation rights on key food items such as rice, tea and cooking oil; and establishing a database to track supply and demand as well as prices. Such efforts seem to promise long-term food security.

There are also opportunities for high-level cooperation between Seoul and Abu Dhabi in the more immediate term. Drawing on lessons from saemaeul woondong, Seoul has gleaned insights that other nations might benefit from.

As an example, water resource development is a major driving force for improved agricultural productivity. Korea has valuable experience in the construction of large-scale groundwater development projects in Libya. At home, Korea has also been pushing national policies aimed at obtaining stable water resources and developing reservoirs.

The field of cooperation between the UAE and Korea has been diversifying, from nuclear power plant development to petroleum, military, medical care and renewable energy since the two countries forged a strategic partnership in 2009. Based on that partnership, the two countries have also started to put a priority on agricultural cooperation to secure stable food sources in response to the worldwide food crisis. As Korea learnt decades ago, feeding a nation takes hard work, vision and, most of all, a healthy appetite for cooperation.

 

Hong Moon-pyo is the chief executive of the Korea Rural Community Corporation

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