South Korea tries to get people to eat rice, again

SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - South Korea’s government is planning to tell the people that it is their patriotic and historic duty to put down the sandwich and pick up the rice bowl as the country tries to grapple with a huge surplus.

South Korea’s heavily protected rice market is facing massive oversupply due to record harvests and people eating less of the traditional diet staple and more bread and noodles.

“Korean consumers’ tastes have steadily changed to prefer wheat-based products to rice and it makes it quite difficult to win them back,” said Park Sun-woo, a farm ministry official.

South Korea wants to lower rice prices, which are some of the highest in Asia due to protectionism, by releasing stockpiled rice at steep discounts to companies that make processed food.

The next step is a public relations blitz to convince people to return to a traditional, healthy diet, supported by their countrymen working in the fields to put food on their tables.

Along the way, it will also push local liquor made with rice, trying to build the market for traditional spirits by allowing distillers discounted prices on stockpiled rice.

“We are likely to have around 160,000 tonnes of rice surplus every year. Promoting the processed rice industry not only helps farmers but also expands the rice market,” agriculture minister Chang Tae-pyong told reporters.

Another factor adding to the oversupply comes from South Korea cutting off rice handouts to North Korea due to political wrangling between the rival states.

Seoul once provided up to 500,000 tonnes of rice a year but suspended the handouts more than a year ago.

What is alarming ministry officials is that South Korea’s per-capita annual rice consumption of 76 kg (167.5 lb) has fallen by a quarter over the last decade.

It is still higher than the 57-67 kg consumed by neighbors Japan and Taiwan, who have also seen falls in consumption as a more affluent public also eats less of the grain and opts for easier to prepare wheat-based alternatives.

And with wheat prices nearly one third of locally produced rice at 2,000 won ($1.61) a kg, it looks like rice will remain on the back-burner for a while.

The government, however, is undeterred.

“There is a chance to regain its lost ground because consumers are concerned about their health and well-being,” a farm ministry official said.

Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Miral Fahmy