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Korea’s agricultural technology goes global

Korea is earning a reputation overseas for its advanced agricultural technology, as the country lends industry assistance to more and more developing countries. Once an aid recipient, Korea has turned into an aid donor, helping the international community solve such pressing global issues as poverty.

In 2000, 191 heads of state gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York. They agreed on eight goals to reach by 2015 through international cooperation, calling them the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The first goal on the list is battling poverty and starvation, aiming to halve the number of those who live in absolute poverty, defined as those who subsist on less than US$1 a day.

The heads of state noted that three-quarters of those living in poverty live in rural areas, most of whom work in the agricultural industry. The OECD has asserted that an increase in income for farming families enhances agricultural productivity and is the key to eliminating poverty, a finding backed up by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), which is responsible for official development assistance from the UK.

Simultaneously, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest civilian charity organization, is lending its full support to help poor countries develop their agricultural industry, well aware that the main cause of sickness and death in the world’s poorest areas is famine. The foundation launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in connection with the Rockefeller Foundation after studying agricultural reform in a number of different countries.

(Left) A trainee from the Ghana branch of the Korea-Africa Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative observes a flower on Jeju Island; (right) a trainee learns to test glucose levels of fruit (Photos courtesy of International Technical Cooperation Center).


* Historical solutions

Korea has established itself as a model for agricultural reform. As recently as the 1950s, Korea was one of the poorest nations in the world, but after joining the OECD, Korea officially became an aid donor in November 2009. This rapid transformation was made possible due to huge innovations in the nation’s agricultural industry.

Korea’s "Saemaul Undong" (New Community Movement), an integrated rural community-development campaign undertaken in the 1970s, was particularly helpful in this regard and is still a benchmark for many developing nations.

The movement aimed to increase the income of rural communities and played an important role in shaping Korean society in the 1970s. Under a motto that stressed diligence, self-help, and cooperation, Saemaul Undong helped lay the groundwork for food self-sufficiency through tasks that ranged from improvement of village roads to the construction of irrigation facilities.

According to the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, rice production increased from a meager 3.94 million tons in 1970 to over 5.62 million tons in 1985, then to more than 6.05 million tons in 1988. In short, it took less than 10 years for Korea to produce more rice, the staple of the Korean diet, than they consumed.

* Going global

In September 2010, the 30th Session of the FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific (APRC) was held in Gyeongju. President Lee Myung-bak said at the opening ceremony, “Advanced countries need to expand humanitarian support and development cooperation for developing countries.

“Based on Korea’s experience in realizing food security, we will redouble our efforts to help developing countries with customized technologies and infrastructure to match local conditions.”

The Korean government confirmed its determination to lead the global battle against poverty and famine, and the country’s experiences became a symbol of hope.

Korea’s overseas agricultural technology development program began in 1972. As of 2010, Korea has concluded 156 cooperation agreements with other countries or organizations, invited 3,708 people from 116 countries for training, and sent 437 agricultural experts to 72 nations.

The KOPIA (Korea Project on International Agriculture), which is run by the Rural Development Administration (RDA), was launched in 2009 to help integrate such agricultural projects in a more systematic way. The RDA established KOPIA centers in 2009 in six nations (Vietnam, Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Kenya, Brazil, and Paraguay), and a year later set up centers in four other nations (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Algeria, Cambodia, and the Philippines).

This year, the RDA plans to establish five more KOPIA centers, starting with the one it opened in Ethiopia this July. “Overseas agricultural development cannot happen overnight,” says Kim Nam-soo, director of RDA’s Technology Cooperation Bureau. “It’s necessary to build trust with other nations through a history of successful interactions.” The RDA plans to build 30 more KOPIA centers by 2013.

(Left) Trainees at a horticultural institute learn to properly package fresh vegetables; (right) trainees listen to a lecture on how to preserve agricultural genes at the RDA Genebank (Photos on courtesy of International Technical Cooperation Center).

 
KOPIA aims to continue agricultural cooperation with developing nations through technological support and the co-development of resources. The spirit of the project is based on customized support. The RDA believes past support programs led by other countries were less fruitful even with advanced technology and proven agricultural methods, because they were not customized for local conditions. It’s pointless to donate farm machinery to farmers who can’t afford the gas to run it.

KOPIA has kept this in mind as it has attempted to adapt technology to meet local needs. In Muguga, Kenya, for instance, farmers used to thresh grain by hitting a sheaf of rice on a hard surface. In response to this, KOPIA designed and then supplied a new threshing machine to Kenyans which could be powered by a bicycle. Furthermore, KOPIA shared other technology, such as a traditional Korean rice-planting technique using a “motjul” (rice planting line). These and other initiatives have led to a 20% increase in Kenyan rice production.

In other areas as well, KOPIA is helping farmers support themselves and develop agricultural resources by focusing on a region or nation’s main crops. That has translated into tropical crops and bio-energy produce (used as an alternative energy source) in Southeast Asia; feed grain and fruits and vegetables in Central Asia; and oil plants and garden plants in Central and South America.

* Diverse donors

While KOPIA centers are helping increase overall production and incomes of farming communities, programs such as the Asian Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative (AFACI) and the Korea-Africa Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative (KAFACI) are designed to solve multilateral issues within a broader framework.

AFACI was launched in November 2009 with 12 member nations, including the Philippines, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Mongolia, Thailand, and Korea, which is presently the organization’s secretariat. It aims to increase the average income in farming communities and address agricultural problems such as pest and disease control. AFACI categorizes its tasks according to the scope and nature of the work that needs to be done, localizing needed support.

The tasks are split up into pan-Asian regional and national categories, and offer workshops and training. Today, AFACI is carrying out a wide range of projects, including construction of networks for agricultural technology and information, and developing organic farming technology for sustainable agriculture.

KAFACI was launched in July 2010 to reduce poverty and hunger through rural development in Africa. It has 16 members, including Ethiopia, Angola, and Cameroon, with Korea serving as the group’s secretariat. Africa’s agricultural background and history vary greatly from Korea’s, which is why such close attention is being paid to the region.

As one RDA expert explained, “At first, each member nation proposes three technological fields they want to develop. Korea then invites experts from each of these fields to offer a 10-week training session at related research centers. Through this process, the two parties come up with a list of goals to accomplish and establish a direction in which to perform the projects.”

By Seo Dong-chul
Article from KOREA Magazine September 2011

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