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What’s being done about falling rice consumption?

The government and farmers are heavily promoting rice products like makgeolli and tteokbokki.
Apr 03,2010
Can you imagine a life without rice? Steamed rice has been a staple in Korean cuisine for as long as anyone can remember. And that is why many of your parents would force you to eat a bowl of bap and banchan (side dishes) for breakfast even during the busiest morning hours, saying, “Rice power is the best way to prepare for the day.”

Rice, as you are probably well aware, is more than just a crop here. The word bap means rice, but also refers to an entire meal, while conjuring up images of livelihood, survival, childhood (especially for those to grow up in rural areas) and memories of home. Korea’s farming families have long sustained their lives by growing rice plants.

But things are changing now. Some of you might be muttering, “I don’t eat rice for breakfast,” and Korean farmers and provincial governments, along with policy makers and politicians, are trying to revive rice consumption and salvage what they consider a symbol of traditional Korean cuisine and culture.

Rice’s decline has one major cause: options. Koreans have more choice in what they eat today, and pasta, pizza, fried chicken, noodles or hundreds of other dishes that don’t necessarily involve rice are available at restaurants across the city. Even if you eat at home, you still can opt for a bowl of cereal or toast for breakfast instead of going through the time-consuming process of preparing steamed rice, soup and side dishes while rushing out to catch the bus.

Recent data have confirmed this trend. Koreans’ per-capita rice consumption was 74 kilograms (163 pounds) in 2009, down 1.8 kilograms from the previous year and continuing a decline of 25 straight years. The pace has accelerated in the 2000s, as consumption tumbled from 99.2 kilograms in 1998 to 82 kilograms in 2004 and 75.8 kilograms in 2008.

These developments are due to more than just economic change, since rice is still considered a centerpiece of Korean culture and values and an important part of the national psyche. Also, government officials and political parties here have long worked hard to safeguard the interests of the rural population and to please rice farmers, who have traditionally displayed higher voter turnout in elections than urban residents.

So what exactly are government policy makers, the food industry, farmers and the politicians who represent them doing to reverse the trend? Policy makers are launching a flurry of campaigns to encourage young Koreans to eat more rice while offering regulatory support for local eateries selling tteokbokki (a spicy boiled dish of sliced rice cake, meat, eggs and spices) and other rice-derived food.

Major food companies are rolling out more cookies and other products made of rice at the behest of the government. Liquor makers are ratcheting up efforts to produce more makgeolli (a traditional rice-based alcoholic beverage), based on aggressive support form the government and explosive demand from consumers at home and in Japan, while local rice farmers are also beefing up efforts to go global by developing their own high-end rice brands and selling them abroad.

Tteokbokki, traditionally sold at small outdoor street vendors, had long been considered a cheap, low-quality, even unsanitary snack unworthy of a serious look by regulators or respectable chefs. But in the last year or so the government has turned to the tubular snack to spur on rice consumption, finally pledging 14 billion won ($12.4 million) from 2009 to 2013 to develop the 900 billion won local tteokbokki industry. That campaign will provide rice used for tteokbokki production at cheaper prices, set up a state-run research center dedicated exclusively to studying tteokbokki and even introduce how to cook the dish in local school textbooks - ideas that were unimaginable only a few years ago.

As a result, the number of tteokbokki restaurants - a definite upgrade from the traditional outdoor vendors - has grown from 1,075 in 2004 to 2,203 last year, while the long-stagnant figure of rice consumption for snack production has started to climb, from 41,000 tons to more than 49,000 tons during the same period, according to government tallies.

Giant food makers here are also joining the fray, partly due to nudges from the government but also because of demand from increasingly health-conscious consumers who are looking for better cookies and biscuits. Nong Shim, Korea’s second-largest food firm, said it is planning to ratchet up production of its snacks and instant noodles made from rice from 12,000 tons in 2009 to up to 30,000 tons this year. Its industry rival Lotte Confectionery has also rolled out a flurry of new cookies made of rice, with the target to increase its rice purchasing from 1,600 tons in 2009 to 2,500 tons in 2012. That’s nearly 10 percent of the amount of flour it currently uses to make treats.

Of course, a squishy rice cake cookie covered in chocolate is a far cry from the old-fashioned breakfast bowl of steamed rice. But farmers and government officials have realized that the days when all or even most Koreans eat bowls of rice with every single meal, every day, are gone. So they are trying to divert rice crops to so-called “industrial use,” referring to products made from rice. These include tteokbokki, instant noodles, cookies and even alcoholic beverages like makgeolli.

Rice is the main ingredient of the milky wine, which is made by fermenting a mixture of boiled rice and water. The rising popularity of the Korean rice wine is expected to help boost local rice consumption, too. Consumption of all rice wines across the country in the first 10 months of 2009 amounted to 158,309 liters (41,820 gallons), up nearly 40 percent compared to the same period in 2008, at a time when consumption of all other liquors experienced a downturn amid a severe recession. For instance, whiskey drinking was down 35.1 percent, beer declined 1.9 percent, and even soju fell 4.3 percent.

But the growing demand for the industrial use of rice has so far been insufficient to offset rapidly sliding demand in homes, meaning rice farmers need to find even more ways to fill the void, for instance, by peddling their rice to buyers in other countries. Rice exports have long been severely restricted by the government, which is concerned about Korea’s food self-sufficiency and about stoking criticism from overseas of Korea’s rice market, which heavily restricts imports.

But farmers, feeling increasingly anxious about their own livelihoods, are wasting no time acting on their own within the rigorous government rules. Many regional rice farmers’ unions, especially those in areas long known for the crop, have already started forging deals with foreign buyers individually in recent years, selling in the United States, Ireland, Indonesia and Australia. Total rice exports have grown dramatically over the years, from 86,708 kilograms in 2001 to 280,520 kilograms in 2004 and up to 4,495,138 kilograms in 2009, according to data from Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corp.

By Jung Ha-won [hawon@joongang.co.kr]
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