|Rural Development Administration (RDA) Administrator Kim Kyeong-kyu speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at RDA headquarters in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, June 1. Courtesy of RDA|
Korea eyes leadership in global effort to raise food security
By Nam Hyun-woo
JEONJU, North Jeolla Province ― The COVID-19 outbreak has triggered an alarm on food security in many countries, as labor migration and logistics suffer difficulties that hurt the global food supply chain.
With the pandemic adding more uncertainties to the global food industry, which was already threatened by rapid climate change, countries are heightening their efforts to enhance their food security and self-sufficiency, with some nations having climates and environments unfavorable for agriculture attempting to overcome their challenges.
The Rural Development Administration of Korea (RDA) believes mounting uncertainties are demanding the world to come up with advanced agricultural technologies, and the state-run R&D agency will continue working to make Korea an agricultural powerhouse.
"With growing uncertainties weighing down the world, it is important to secure (agricultural) technologies that can cope with various kind of challenges," RDA Administrator Kim Kyeong-kyu said during an interview with The Korea Times at RDA headquarters in Jeonju.
His remark came amid the fallout of COVID-19 affecting domestic and global food supply chain. In the U.S., large slaughterhouses and meat processing plants have fallen ill to the virus, while large farms in Korea are also suffering difficulties in finding migrated workers as cross-border travels face setbacks.
"To address these setbacks stemming from uncertainties, you have to automate farms and establish systems that can replace manpower," Kim said. "The pandemic became another reason for why agriculture should embrace artificial intelligence and smart systems."
The rapid climate change across the world is also a factor amplifying uncertainties surrounding the agricultural industry.
According to the RDA, Korea had a bad crop for apples and pears this year due to unexpected cold weather. The average temperature last year was relatively high, while the following spring was adversely cold, hampering apple and pear trees from bearing fruit. Additional damage was dealt to apple and pear farms here, as fires spread across some rural areas of the country.
"Everyone can handle climate change if the climate changes in a certain pattern," Kim said. "In recent years, however, climate change has been unpredictable. This raises the necessity for the agricultural industry to develop technologies for overcoming these challenges."
A growing number of countries are becoming more serious about their food security amid growing uncertainties surrounding the global agricultural industry.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the number of undernourished people worldwide has been rising from 785.4 million in 2015 to 821.6 million in 2018. In 2018, 26.4 percent of the global population, or about 2 billion people, had experienced moderate or severe levels of food insecurity.
The RDA has been carrying out a series of projects around the world to tackle those uncertainties.
One of the projects is growing rice in a desert in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). On May 10, the RDA and a local institute harvested 1,400 kilograms of rice, after they planted RDA-developed Asemi rice on a 1,890-square-meter plot in the desert area of Sharjah last November.
The UAE's per capita rice consumption stands at 95 kilograms per year, but the country relies 100 percent on imported rice, due to its environment and climate unfavorable for growing rice.
Asemi rice was developed in 2013 by the RDA in an effort to make an export rice variant that could grow well in non-tropical countries.
Kim said the project is far from economically feasible due to high water prices in the country. Instead, the project was more about the UAE's future plans for food security.
According to the RDA, the project used 175 tons of water per hectare on a daily basis, worth 230,000 won ($188). If this prolongs for three months, the cost stands at 20 million won, while the price of rice harvested per hectare remains at 5.64 million won.
"The project was aimed at complementing the food security of the UAE," Kim said. "We also thought there would be a reason why UAE policymakers carried out the project despite the low economic feasibility."
Kim said it is too early to calculate the economic impact of the UAE rice project, but it will create additional value by exporting Korea's rice-processing machines as well as fertilizer.
Along with the rice project, the RDA is also making efforts to overcome climate-based challenges.
Currently, the RDA is testing a digitally controlled cooling house which can grow crops and flowers in seasons when they usually don't grow.
In the first stage of its test, the RDA planted strawberries in July, which is early summer in Korea, and harvested them in November, which is autumn here, and confirmed that they were sweeter and more colorful even though they passed through a scorching summer. Normally strawberries are planted here in fall or early winter and harvested in late spring or early summer.
Currently, the RDA is also planning to grow peppers and tomatoes in their off-season and is seeking to expand the range to include peaches, apricots and other fruits and vegetables.
"The Netherlands has set up an international agricultural standard with its glasshouse technology thanks to its fast response to climate change," Kim said. "Our hope is to catch up to the Netherlands' leadership in greenhouse with cheaper cooling and heating costs."
In doing so, Kim said the RDA plans to establish a global center for greenhouse horticulture in Korea where RDA researchers and other leading agricultural experts can carry out R&D projects.
The RDA also has been leading a rice-growing partnership with 19 African countries, titled Korea-Africa Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative (KAFACI), to help the countries to improve their food security.
Based on Korea's Tongil rice, the KAFACI has registered five types of rice for Senegal, Mali and Malawi, and is planning to register eight more in Uganda, Kenya and Ghana.
Showing a noticeable expansion is Isriz rice developed for Senegal. In 2018, Senegal planted Isriz rice in a 500-hectare area and plans to expand it to 20,000 hectares in 2021.
These projects are being expedited under Kim's leadership of stressing necessity ahead of possibility and feasibility.
"Our R&D projects' success rate once reached 95 percent, because we only did projects that seemed possible and had almost zero chance of failure. An R&D organization's priority should be the necessity of certain technology, not the possibility or economic feasibility of that," Kim said.
"The RDA will continue making attempts for challenging projects. Through cooperation with other nations and international agricultural organizations, we will save no efforts for Korea to lead in global agricultural technology."