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Jeju tangerines threatened by Japan’s action

Dec 31,2018
The fate of some 900 tons of tangerines in Jeju Island remains up in the air after Japan recently applied for protection of two tangerine varieties.

The types are Asumi and Mihaya, which were developed at a research and development agency in 2014 in Japan.

Seedlings were imported to Korea and 208 farms on Jeju are growing some 920 tons of Asumi and Mihaya tangerines today.

Their fate hangs on the verdict of an application by the Japanese government to register the two types of tangerines as patents unique to Japan. The request for protection over these two tangerine types was submitted to the South Korean government on Jan. 15.

It usually takes around two years for such requests to be completely processed in Korea. In the meantime, sale of the seedlings for the two types of tangerines has been banned in the country based on the Act on the Protection of New Varieties of Plants.

A violator can be fined up to 100 million won ($89,590) or sentenced up to seven years.

The situation for local farmers got worse in November, when Jeju’s provincial government and the island’s branch of the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation said the ban may apply to both the fruit and the seedlings.

“I bought the Asumi seedlings from a company that imported it directly from Japan,” said a 44-year-old farmer surnamed Kim who has a 2,300 square-meter (0.5 acre) Asumi tangerine farm in Seogwipo, Jeju. “I’ve spent the past year growing them and now I don’t know if I can sell any of them.”

“I spent sweat and blood growing the tangerines for the past year,” said a 73-year-old farmer surnamed Song who has a 6,600 square-meter Mihaya tangerine farm in Seogwipo. “But after the announcement [in November], I couldn’t harvest the fruits in December [hoping for a change in the policy].”

Upon some farmers’ request, the Jeju provincial government on Dec. 19 requested the central government to make an authoritative interpretation of the Act on the Protection of New Varieties of Plants and whether it applies to both seedlings and fruit.

Last Wednesday, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs said its interpretation of the law was that it does not apply to harvests from the seedlings.

“After the announcement, branch offices of the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation on the island are holding meetings about the next course of action,” said a member of the Jeju branch of the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation. “There is still the possibility that royalties will be charged after the patent registration goes through.”

About 94 percent of the types of tangerines being grown in Jeju originated in Japan, according to the Jeju Agricultural Research and Extension Services. But most of them were imported more than 50 years ago, so farmers don’t have to pay royalties.

Some experts are calling for more government support for Korea to develop its own types of tangerines.

“Even if a new variety of tangerine is developed here, it will take around five years for the tree to grow and bear fruit,” said Song Kwan-jeong, professor of horticulture and agricultural plant science at the Jeju National University. “Farmers will need incentives and support to be encouraged to switch to growing newly-developed domestic types of tangerine trees.”

BY CHOI CHOONG-IL [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]