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Rice Article: Korea  

Decreasing Rice Consumption
By Park Moo-jong
The Korea Times, February 18, 2004

Tomorrow is "Sollal," or Lunar New Year's Day, one of the two most festive traditional holidays of the nation along with "Chusok," Korea's "Thanksgiving," which falls on Aug. 15 on the lunar calendar.

When it comes to Sollal, "ttokkuk," a beef-broth soup with slices of white, round rice cake, comes first to mind together with "sebae," the ceremony of kneeling down and bowing politely to family elders and wishing them luck and good health in the new year in return for a gift of money.

On the eve of Sollal, housewives used to form a long queue in front of their village rice mills with their own rice they brought to make "karaettok," a roll of the rice cake for ttokkuk. But these days, most of them go to markets or stores to buy packed slices of the cake, just the amount they need, for convenience.

The traditional soup, made of the grain of Koreans' staple food, is still important for even today's children for eating a bowl of ttokuk means growing a year older, although it is not that popular of late with their increasing preference for Western fast food indulging in fatty hamburgers and pizza.

Rice had been a precious and rare thing before the country's modernization. In northern region of the peninsula, in particular, where rice farming was less popular than in the southern provinces due to the lack of paddies, boiled rice or "ssalbap" was a specialty for family celebrations.

About 30 years ago, the biggest wish of hungry children from poor families was without a doubt the desire to eat plain, boiled white rice and beef soup. During those times, not only could they not afford to buy rice but it was not abundant.

A "legendary" sad episode involving the foreign wife of a top national leader in the 1950s showcases the serious shortage of rice at that time: The lady heard that many people, especially in the farming villages, in early spring, were going hungry for they had no rice to eat. She asked, "Then, why don't they eat bread?"

Rice has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years on the peninsula. It is the staple grain of Koreans, which has shaped their culture, dietcooked rice and of rice snacks, though. According to the Korea Rural Economic Institute, Americans' rice consumption per capita rose from 11.9 kilograms in 1990 to 13.4 kilograms in 2003.

Rice farming still remains important politically and socially, even if its contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) is less than 10 percent, as seen in the yearly routine of the National Assembly to set the government's purchase price of the year's rice crops from farmers.

The shrinking consumption of rice has directly effected the reduction of farmers' incomes and farming lands as well.

The United Nations has designated 2004 as the "International Year of Rice" to promote the production of and access to rin two bowls, or 227.9 grams, a day last year.

To be more precise, rice consumption per capita last year was 83.2 kilograms, down 3.8 kilograms, or 4.4 percent, compared to 87 kilograms in 2002.

In contrast, the consumption of alternative foods like bread, noodles and "ramyon" (instant noodles) has sharply increased.

Corresponding to the declining consumption of rice, the size of farmland is also decreasing year by year as a result of industrialization, expanding urban areas and shrinking profitability of rice cultivation.

This means a sharp rise in the import of other cereals such as wheat and soybeans, and not before long, Korea may become a major importer of rice.

In other Asian countries like Japan and Taiwan where rice is also the staple food, its consumption has dwindled in an apparent change of dietary patterns with the flood of Western fast food.

But it is interesting that rice consumption in the United States has increased over the past 10 years, thanks to the fad of Asian-style cooked rice and of rice snacks, though. According to the Korea Rural Economic Institute, Americans' rice consumption per capita rose from 11.9 kilograms in 1990 to 13.4 kilograms in 2003.

Rice farming still remains important politically and socially, even if its contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) is less than 10 percent, as seen in the yearly routine of the National Assembly to set the government's purchase price of the year's rice crops from farmers.

The shrinking consumption of rice has directly effected the reduction of farmers' incomes and farming lands as well.

The United Nations has designated 2004 as the "International Year of Rice" to promote the production of and access to rice, a vital food crop, which feeds more than half the world's population while providing the livelihood for millions.

It is an unprecedented step in the history of the global organization in devoting a year to a commodity, namely rice.

A total of 44 countries, including the Philippines and most Asian nations, signed the U.N. declaration for the special year. The Republic of Korea did not join, but the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) did.

It is bizarre that such a country like South Korea where rice has been central to life traditionally did not join the significant international movement.

Rice is now cultivated in 113 countries and on all the continents except Antarctica, according to the U.N.

Although domestic consumption of the staple grain has been in decline in recent years, rice enters Koreans' lives as a daily food and the very symbol of our culinary culture.

On the occasion of the festive Sollal holidays, foreigners who have not yet tasted ttokuk, the season's trademark cuisine is recommended most.

Numerous campaigns have been launched by the government and various civic groups. It is regrettable, however, there is no move for a social drive to encourage people to eat more rice and thus to help foster the main agricultural industry of the nation and a symbol of our long heritage.

moojong@koreatimes.co.kr

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