By Jung Min-ho
Japanese rice cultivars such as Koshihikari have become increasingly popular among Koreans in recent years as more consumers seek new varieties of this staple food.
In a bid to compete with them in "the luxury rice market," a government research agency has recently developed and released two rice varieties ― Haedeul and Alchanmi ― which aim to overtake their Japanese rivals over the next few years.
"Japanese rice cultivars are overpriced and overrated," a senior researcher, surnamed Roh, at the Rural Development Administration (RDA), told The Korea Times Thursday. "Our task is to challenge the popular perception that Japanese rice is tastier, which is not true. Blindfolded, I bet you would choose Korean rice over Japanese."
In fact, in a blind test last year, 48 percent of participants picked Haedeul over Koshihikari ― a Japonica rice cultivar internationally known for its good taste ― which received 28 percent of votes.
In some regions, especially Gyeonggi Province, Korean rice varieties have already started replacing Japanese ones.
According to the RDA, the cultivation area for foreign rice varieties here, most of which are the three Japanese varieties (Akibare, Koshihikari and Hitomebore), was estimated at nearly 66,000 hectares (about 9 percent of Korea's total rice cultivation area) in 2018. That is thought to have decreased to about 56,000 hectares this year. The RDA's goal is to reduce it to less than 10,000 hectares by 2024.
Meanwhile, land for Haedeul and Alchanmi production increased to 1,020 hectares from 131 hectares, and to 947 hectares from 10 hectares, respectively. The RDA thinks the combined cultivation area for the two will reach 7,500 hectares by 2022.
Haedeul and Alchanmi are considered among the best home-developed rice cultivars. But they are not the only options. Since 2003, the National Institute of Crop Science under the RDA has developed 18 rice varieties, including Samkwang, Haiami, Haepum and Haedamssal.
Today, the land used for premium rice accounts for about 25 percent of the total, from only 1.2 percent in 2006. The RDA says the market is expected to continue growing.
But not everyone is happy with the RDA's aggressive marketing. Some consumers here worry that their favorite rice brands will disappear from the market because of what they see as an extension of the ongoing boycott of Japanese products, which was triggered by political issues such as sexual slavery and forced labor during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. The movement has intensified under the Moon Jae-in administration.
Asked whether the RDA's project is politically motivated, Roh said no.
"The timing is interesting. But the RDA started working on this project long before the start of the Moon administration," he said.
"I understand the concern that consumer rights may be curtailed as a result. But no one will force Korean farmers to cultivate certain crops. If consumers continue to seek Japanese rice and farmers know it, then it will still be on the market."