Can efficient potato farms end North's food problems?

Posted in Koreas | 05-May-04 | Source: Joong Ang Daily

North in Need: Part 2 of 6

North Korea's most urgent need is food aid: While people in the North may no longer be starving, as they were in the late 1990s, many still suffer from malnutrition.

Every year, the South Korean government sends 300,000-400,000 tons of rice, worth billions of won (millions of dollars), to the North. But every year, the North lacks 1.5 million tons of rice; what is currently provided is not enough.

The way to solve the food shortages, agricultural experts believe, is to increase productivity through reforms of the North's agricultural sector. Since 2002, the North has been undertaking its own reforms to maximize agricultural production. In the past, cooperative farms determined output in accordance with central government planning, but now they have an incentive system. Furthermore, the government has established databases with information on weather, types of soil and other data to provide scientific backing for farming.

Experts say that these kinds of self-help efforts, combined with gradual and systematic Southern support, could upgrade the North's agricultural productivity.

South Korean civic groups have attempted to help the North in this effort. Since 1998, Kim Soo-kwon, also known as "Doctor Corn," and the International Corn Foundation have been working with North Korean agricultural bodies to develop a "super corn" suitable for the North's climate and soil. However, the North Korean government has chosen potatoes as its subsidy crop instead of corn, and is now in the midst of a "potato farming revolution."

Problems are substantial. North Korea's potato cultivation method has been to cut seed embryos of good potatoes and sow them, but this has kept production levels at or below 10 tons per hectare as many potatoes become infected with viruses because the North lacks pesticides. The Southern branch of an international civic group, World Vision, has built facilities to produce "non-virus seed potatoes." These farms have produced 40 tons of potatoes per hectare, increasing production fourfold.

A further problem is that potatoes require large amounts of fertilizer. A North Korean agricultural official said on Dec. 17, 2003, that about 100,000 tons of fertilizers are needed in the next three to five years. Last year, the South Korean government provided 300,000 tons of fertilizers to the North, but that was not enough even for rice farming. Experts say that 100,000 tons of fertilizer costs around 30 billion won.

North Korea plans to sow 10 billion potato seeds in 200,000 hectares of land by 2006. If this goes ahead, potato productivity would increase to 8 million tons. In terms of calorie content, five kilograms of potatoes equal one kilogram of rice, according to international standards. Hence, 8 million tons of potatoes equals 1.6 million tons of rice. This crop would resolve the North's food shortages.

To increase North Korea's agricultural output, the South's best strategy is to supply fertilizers for potatoes, provide agricultural equipment, and operate model farms. A representative of a civic group in the South helping the North with its agriculture said, "Instead of one-time relief aid, aid in the form of agricultural equipment costs less and raises productivity."

But to enhance productivity, cooperative farms in the North need further reforms. Long-term leases could be given to farmers, and a switch needs to be made to a market-based system. These kinds of measures seem out of reach at present.