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Korean Food, Land and Democracy: A Conversation with Anders Riel Müller

This August 24-September 1, 2013, KPI Fellow Anders Riel Müller will be leading a delegation of international participants to South Korea on a Food Sovereignty Tour to discover Korean Food, Land and Democracy. KPI Board Member Christine Ahn sat down via Skype with Anders to learn a little more about the food and agriculture situation in South Korea, why South Korea’s food sovereignty movement led by farmers offers the world hope, and why this tour was created in the first place.

South Korean Agriculture in Crisis

Christine: Anders, you’ve now spent the past few years traveling around South Korea, connecting with the farmers and peasants movements and learning more about the food and agriculture situation. What have you learned?

Anders: South Korea has been experiencing declining food self sufficiency for the past 20 years, and it has worsened over the past 5-6 years largely due to the new Free Trade Agreements with the United States and European Union. South Korea is also now in negotiations with Australia. These large agricultural exporting nations view South Korea as a major market for their agricultural products.

Korean agriculture is in crisis. First of all 40 percent of the agricultural population is over 60 years old, and average farm household debt has been exceeding annual total income since 2003. They carry a very heavy debt load. And the South Korean government is very limited in terms of what it can do to help farmers because of the restrictions placed by the World Trade Organization (WTO). For example, because South Korea is a party to the WTO, it means that virtually all of the old support programs that once protected farmers have been dismantled. The government is trying new ways to support farmers by helping them convert to organic and by emphasizing the aesthetic value of the rural countryside.

The agricultural sector is in decline. The amount of farmland in use is in decline, as is the land ownership among farmers. More farmers are now farming on rented land—in fact, 50% are now leasing land. Development policy has also changed so that more agricultural land has been opened up for urban and industrial development.

In 2009, there were approximately 3.1 million farmers, 6.4% percent of the South Korean population. At least half of farmers are women. Men tend to work in the more economically profitable sectors of rice and beef, which are still relatively well protected, whereas women tend to grow more in vegetables, which is harder to turn a profit and more difficult to sustain. While the population of Korean farmers is on the decline, compared to other wealthy countries, it’s still relatively high.

The average South Korean farm size is 1.4 hectares, which means they are very small farms, like the ones in Japan and Taiwan. Their output per hectare, however, is just as high as the farms in many European countries, such as France and Germany. Although these family farms are small scale, their cereal output per hectare is comparable to the output of mechanized farms in Western Europe. In fact, South Korean farms are on par with the United States in terms of productivity of cereal production, rice and beans with lower levels of mechanization and capitalization.

South Korean farms are small scale, and while it is mostly mechanized, they don’t use large agricultural machinery, but rather rototillers, small planters and harvesters, machines that most Americans would consider garden machines. Unfortunately, Korean farmers still use a lot of pesticides and fertilizers, which were systematically applied under the U.S. food aid program known as PL 480. This U.S. policy began at the end of WWI but it wasn’t until after the Korean War that PL 480 really came into being in South Korea. The United States subsidized fertilizer and pesticides to increase the productivity of South Korean farms because of severe food shortages after the Korean War.

By the 1970s, South Korea made a shift in agricultural policy, moving away from its dependence upon PL 480, which was being phased out. The government built new national industries in agricultural chemicals and fertilizer. The 1970s is known as the period of South Korea’s green revolution and also its “golden period” of Korean agriculture because food security was directly related to agriculture policy. The government sought to achieve domestic food security through domestic agriculture. It was also pursued for political and economic reasons, particularly to protect South Korea’s balance of trade. By producing food in Korea, the government could save money on imports. The program strengthened political support in rural areas for the military regime by extending power to state controlled village councils and agricultural cooperatives.

In the two decades following the Korean War, South Korea lagged behind North Korea’s development. They closely followed the policies implemented in the North, including land reforms which were introduced in South Korea because the government feared an uprising among farmers who knew they had succeeded in North Korea. South Korea, however, never achieved food self sufficiency. By 1980, South Korea achieved self-sufficiency in rice, which was a big target for the government, but by the end of the modernization campaign, food self sufficiency rates was at 70%.

From 1980 and onwards, food self sufficiency was on the decline because of trade liberalization and economic liberalization in general. Not only is South Korea forced to phase out protections for domestic agriculture, the country began facing changing diets. From the early 1980s, there was a sharp increase in beef consumption, with South Korean cows fed primarily with imported grains. This is a very interesting paradox—even though the domestic beef industry is protected—they are almost always entirely fed with imported grains. So when you eat Korean beef, it’s likely fed with American corn and soybean. It’s a very sensitive issue in Korea. In 2009, the food self sufficiency rate in South Korea was 50%, but if animal feed is included, food self sufficiency is only 26%. There has also been a sharp decline from the late 1970s in agricultural land—a 17% decline where approximately 400,000 hectares have been lost to urban and industrial development.

Another source of crisis is South Korean farmers’ control over seed. Following the 1997 financial crisis, and subsequent IMF bailout and structural adjustment plans, four major seed companies in South Korea were bought by transnational corporations. These four transnational corporations now control almost two-thirds of the Korean seed market. Because seed prices have gone through the roof, the Korean Women Peasants Association (KWPA) started a native seed program to develop their own seeds so they did not have to pay a huge amount to U.S. seed companies.

The Food Sovereignty Movement

Christine: The situation sounds pretty grim in South Korea. Yet a food sovereignty movement seems to have taken root. Can you tell me a little about this movement?

Anders: Korea’s food sovereignty movement emerged from the anti-WTO movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s. By 2007, however, the KWPA and Korean Peasants League (KPL), sought an alternative to protesting the government’s domestic policies and international policies. They began setting up alternatives and introducing food sovereignty as a policy. The KWPA and KPL and several consumer-producer cooperatives are promoting food sovereignty as national policy.

Food sovereignty operates on two levels. It operates at the grassroots level where farmers set up cooperatives and develop local food systems by making direct connections to consumers in cities. It also operates at the political level where farmers are pushing at the national, provincial and city levels. They have succeeded at the provincial level, but have been virtually ignored at the national level by the ministry of agriculture. This grassroots food movement is interesting because it is the farmers who are driving the movement, not consumers. It’s what makes the Korean food movement distinct from many U.S. or European food movements and so interesting.

At the provincial level, they have received support for establishing cooperatives. Provincial governments, especially regions with large agricultural sectors, have been supportive. Pro-farmer policies have been implemented, such as school lunch programs where cities provide lunches for schools using local produce. At the national level, the KWPA “Our Sisters Garden initiative” got funding through the Korea Social Enterprise Agency, not the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

Why a Food Sovereignty Tour?

Christine: Why did you and Food First decide to organize a Food Sovereignty Tour in South Korea?

Anders: With the success of Gangnam Style and attention on Korea as this hyper modern and urban regional center, I feel there must be tours that show a different part of Korea than what people see in Seoul. There is also a big push from the Korean government to globalize Korean food. Both of these, however, don’t represent that other Korea side that also exists. The global campaign of Korean food doesn’t often show where the food is being produced—the food just becomes consumption based.

I want to show where the food is produced in Korea, and also show that these farmers are an entrepreneurial group of people who are not just locked in tradition and old- fashioned lifestyles. They are very proactive in building new food movements, developing new food products, introducing sustainable agriculture techniques. Life is rural Korea is very positive and so inspiring that we must share what is happening with the rest of the world. Those traveling on the food sovereignty tour will get to see how farmers are organizing, developing new products, and how they are combining modern with traditional food.

Furthermore, tour delegates will also see the historic role of farmers in Korea, the critical roles they played in the struggle for democracy and in resistance during the Japanese occupation. We never hear or learn about farmers, even though they have played such a key role. We will visit historic sites, such as where the legendary Tonghak rebellion emerged. We will visit sites that have been important in Korean peasant history, and meet farmers, see what they are growing, how they produce it, and how small scale agriculture is a viable form of agriculture—even today. It’s not that Korean agriculture got stuck and didn’t develop into large scale agriculture. These farmers chose small scale agriculture to protect their tradition, culture and a certain way of life.

This Food First tour has been organized in collaboration with the Korean Peasants League, the Korean Women’s Peasant Association, and the highly acclaimed Seoul-based culinary tourism agency O’ngo Food Tours. For more information, go to:

*Anders Riel Müller is a Research Fellow with Food First, (a U.S. research organization dedicated to studying and acting on the unjust forces that cause hunger) and the Korea Policy Institute (a U.S. research and educational institute that provides analysis of U.S. policies toward Korea and developments on the Korean peninsula). He is currently living in Denmark where he is writing his PhD at the Danish Institute for International Studies and the Institute for Society and Globalization at Roskilde University. His dissertation is on Korean food and agriculture policy and the Korean government’s role in overseas farmland investments.

**Christine Ahn is an Executive Board Member of the Korea Policy Institute.


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