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The Fight For Real Food In Korea

My first time eating Korean-style food in Seoul was a disappointing experience. I went to a well-known barbecue place in the Hongdae neighborhood that many of my adoptee friends recommended. There was nothing wrong with the meat (Canadian not American as the waitress stressed), but there were only a couple panchan (side dishes) that were not very exciting. Perhaps, I thought, I had been spoiled during my other two visits to Korea, visiting my family and touring the East coast and Jeju Island.

My family is from rural north Gyeongsang, where they always serve seven to 10 types of homemade panchan, and where some of the specialties include Jeju black pig, fresh seafood from Donghae and Pohang, and locally-raised beef. When I finally made it to Seoul, I did not understand how my friends could rave about the food there. It was nothing like what I had come to associate with Korean food.

That this well-known Seoul restaurant seemed unremarkable could be explained by a whole variety of things. However, the more I learned about food economics in Korea, the more I suspected that my mediocre dinner may have been a symptom of something bigger than one chef having an off-night.

In recent years the global interest in Korean food has increased significantly. Some examples of this rising popularity can be seen in Youtube phenomenon Maangchi, an amateur Korean chef who created a popular recipe website, and the Kimchi Chronicles, a public television travelogue and Korean cooking show series, about discovering Korean food from an American perspective. The Korean government poured a lot of funding into Kimchi Chronicles, and other efforts to popularize Korean food overseas, and has been successful in introducing the distinct tastes of Korean cuisine to people who only five years ago had never heard of kimchi.

For food connoisseurs, Seoul has become the next big thing. But the paradox of this Korean food globalization is that getting a truly Korean meal in Seoul is not easy. In fact much of the food in Korea today is not grown or raised in Korea. The chickens are raised in the Philippines, the beef in Australia or the U.S., the soybeans are from Argentina and the wheat is from Russia. Today, there is very little that is truly Korean about Korean food.

In fact today, among the 34 member nations of the economically powerful Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea ranks among the lowest, with an overall self-sufficiency rate of only around 50 percent. “Self-sufficiency” in this ranking refers to the extent to which the nation can supply its own food. In the case of South Korea, the self-sufficiency level becomes worse if we just look at grains such as rice, wheat and barley. For grains in general the self-sufficiency rate is 26 percent, but if we take away rice, the self-sufficiency rate drops to six percent.

Some might not see a problem in such low self-sufficiency rates as long as food can be imported, but the heavy dependence on food imports poses a lot of challenges for South Korean society and its economy. The 2007 global food crisis highlighted Korea’s vulnerable food supply, when there were sharp price increases on basic foodstuffs such as noodles. Food prices contribute significantly to consumer price inflation, which in turn negatively affects Korea’s overall economy and the average household budget.

The concern over food security has resulted in the government allocating millions of dollars for securing food supplies overseas in the next decade. But what about Korean agriculture? Why is Korea not able to feed itself despite being one of the wealthiest nations in the world? Are Korean farmers not able to produce enough food or is something else going on?

As I researched this topic in my work for my Ph.D. I found that, indeed, there is something else going on. In fact, there are complex global economic forces at work which are together making South Korea an increasingly more expensive and impractical place to be in the farming business. This “modernization” of the economy, in the form of removal of trade and economic barriers, has not benefited rural areas to the same extent as the cities. Many rural communities are suffering from poverty and economic stagnation. Biased development policies and focus on export and trade have left Korean agriculture in a state of crisis.

As a response, Korean farmers have not only protested the direction of Korean food and agriculture policy, they have developed a viable alternative that promotes healthy and sustainable food that benefits consumers as well as farmers. Farmers have become advocates and promoters of their own business in Korea in a way they have never been before. They are becoming a voice for food self-sufficiency and consumer protection in addition to advocating for the right to their own survival. It is an unprecedented movement in food economics.

To advocate for this movement, I have helped to organize a Food Sovereignty Tour, with Daniel Gray, a food critic and fellow Korean adoptee living in Seoul. It is our hope that the Food Sovereignty Tour and other efforts like it will help give global voice and support to the efforts of Koreans who wish to support and control their own local economies and food sources.

Farmers under pressure

Korean agriculture has been in perpetual crisis since the 1980s failure of Park Chung Hee’s Rural Infrastructure program the New Community Movement or Saemaeul Undong. By the mid-1980s, many Korean farmers experienced severe debt problems after investing heavily in infrastructure and agricultural inputs. The crisis was exacerbated following the 1997 economic crisis, which led to liberalization of the agricultural sector as part of structural adjustment policies.

By the end of the 1990’s Korean farmers began to voice their dissatisfaction with domestic agricultural policies at the international level most notable during the 2003 World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations in Cancun, Mexico. The conference was marked by tragedy when farmer Lee Kyung-hae crawled the fence surrounding the WTO negotiation complex and stabbed himself to death wearing a sign around his neck saying “WTO kills farmers” to raise awareness of the plight of small farmers not only in Korea, but around the world. Lee’s statement has changed little. Farm debt is continually rising, and household incomes remain much lower in rural areas than in the cities.

The crisis of Korean farmers and the country’s food security crisis is thus a structural problem related to domestic policies favoring industry and trade over agriculture and food self-sufficiency. This is in turn is related to economic globalization. The continued disregard for Korean agriculture by the government can also be seen in the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the U.S. and Korea that was ratified in November 2011 by the Korean Assembly. The ratification was extremely controversial, and in the end, was only ratified only because the conservative Grand National Party was able to singlehandedly push through the agreement despite heavy protests of the opposition Democratic Party.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the FTA will make Korea the single most important agricultural export market for U.S agriculture. Food producers and farmers in Korea fear, and rightly so, that the FTA will be another nail in the coffin of Korean agriculture. Meanwhile Korean farmers and rural areas continue to experience severe economic distress and the pressure on farmland is continuing from many sources, notably due to the controversial Four Rivers Restoration project that has destroyed thousands of acres of fertile farm land along the river banks.

One example of how even “green” policies destroy farm areas is the farming community in Paldang, located an hour’s drive east of Seoul. Sitting on the banks of the Han River and the Paldang reservoir, one of the most important water reservoirs for Seoul, the Paldang community began to farm organic crops in the late 1990’s as part of an agreement to protect the waters of the Han River and the reservoir.

As pioneers of organic farming in Korea, Paldang farmers supply up to 80 percent of all organic produce sold in Seoul, but as a consequence of the Four Rivers Restoration Project, farmers are being evicted to make way for construction of recreational areas for city dwellers including a bike path through what was formerly organic farmland. Paldang residents, environmental non-governmental organizations, and religious groups have resisted the evictions. The International Federation of Organic Farming Movements (IFOAM) threatened to move its 2011 world congress away from Korea if the evictions did not stop. But all to no avail.

Paldang is not the only example. Over the past 30 years agricultural land has been reduced by almost one million acres in South Korea due to urban and industrial expansion. Interestingly, this number is very close to the 900,000 acres of farm land that the government is planning to develop overseas in developing countries to compensate for the lack of domestic food production. So, while Korean farmers are struggling to find land and compete against cheap subsidized food imports, the government is supporting Korean corporations engaged in buying up farmland overseas to grow and raise food for import to South Korea.

Food sovereignty: An alternative to the corporate food system

In short, the Korean government is, on the one hand, seeking to secure food supplies overseas, either through farm land investments in distant developing countries or through free trade agreements with the U.S., the European Union (EU) and Australia. On the other hand, it continues to marginalize Korean farmers by eliminating farmland and allowing unfair competition for Korean produce and livestock. For more than a decade now, national farmers’ movements such as the Korean Peasants League (KPL) and the Korean Women’s Peasants Association (KWPA) have taken the struggle against structural injustice to the streets in Korea, to the National Assembly, to various ruling governments and to the international stage at WTO negotiations.

But the Korean farmers’ movements are not only protesting. They are also building up an alternative food system within Korea, a system that embraces local, healthy, environmentally-sustainable and socially-just food. Since 2007, the KPL and KWPA have promoted the concept of “food sovereignty,” a concept they hope to establish as the overarching paradigm for Korean food and agriculture policy. Food sovereignty stresses the importance of promoting local and healthy food, and equally, it stresses the importance of redefining the relationship between producers and consumers such that the food economy can again be primarily a local economy and dependence of Korean consumers on the corporate food system and large scale industrial agriculture can be lessened or eliminated.

During 2011, as part of my research, I visited some of the many local food projects initiated and supported by KPL and KWPA throughout South Korea, from Gangwon province in the north to Jeju Island in the south. These visits renewed my excitement about Korean food. Meeting farmers, hearing their stories about life in rural Korea, and their efforts to encourage healthy and socially-just food production and consumption in Korea was an eye-opening experience. It is a movement in modern Korea that foreign visitors seldom hear about.

In the city of Chuncheon, I met cattle farmers who are selling their products locally through their own cooperatively-owned butcher store and restaurant in that city. While savoring delicious yook hwe (Korean raw beef salad) at the cooperative restaurant, the founder Ki Wan Chun told me why and how he decided to start a farmer-owned cooperative that would control every aspect of meat production, processing and distribution.

Chun, who owns about 20 cows at a farm located a few miles outside Chuncheon, said he determined that selling his and other members’ beef would secure stable and fair income for fellow local farmers, while supplying local consumers with the highest quality, most affordable beef. The only way to do this, he explained, is by making sure farmers and consumers are in direct contact with one another, a move that challenges the corporate control of the food system. The Chuncheon cooperative is a big success, which I experienced personally by returning later in the day and encountering a packed restaurant of locals eating local beef dishes and homemade panchan.

In North Gyoengsang province, I met women farmers who have formed their own community-supported agriculture project. The business home-delivers fresh organic vegetables, eggs, tofu and kimchi to local consumers in the nearby city of Sangju. The day of my visit, the women were gathered in their new processing facility, packing the weekly boxes that were then picked up by a local shipping company. That same evening, residents in Sangju would receive their weekly shipment. After the packing was completed, we all sat down and shared some delicious local makgeolli (rice liquor), after which I was invited to the home of one farmer, who prepared a fantastic locally-produced meal.

On Jeju Island, I spoke to farmers who have begun saving their own seeds, and who have been advocating use of locally-produced food for the provincial school lunch program. With a group of researchers from Jeju National University, this energetic farmers’ group has initiated a local farmers’ market and a certification program for restaurants which agreed to purchase more than 70 percent of their food from local suppliers.

Jakyung Kim, a young professor from the university, said she helped start the initiative when she returned to Jeju after studying in Japan, and found that it was difficult to find locally-produced food in restaurants. She explained that, while Jeju Island is one of the regions with the highest proportion of farmers, most of the production and distribution is owned by mainland companies, which leaves only a small proportion of the profits for the local economy. Through the local food initiative, she hopes to help local farmers and restaurateurs to revitalize the local economy and encourage higher-value food processing on the island.

These projects were all different, but had in common the effort to put economic power in the hands of local food producers and consumers. They create a sense of empowerment among those involved, and the acknowledgement that food tastes best when grown and raised locally by farmers who know their land and environment. In recent years, efforts like these have demonstrated that Korean farmers and food visionaries, in partnership with consumers, can build a national food system that respects farmers, the environment and maintains the high quality and deliciousness of Korean cuisine.

Food Sovereignty Tour Korea: providing a firsthand experience of sustainable Korean cuisine

Back in Seoul, I connected with Daniel Gray, a fellow adoptee who co-founded O’ngo Food together with Jia Choi to promote high quality cuisine in Korea. His food tours around Seoul are a major tourist attraction for people who want to experience Korean food culture, and his food blog is one of the most popular English language sites for restaurant reviews and food related news in Seoul.

Daniel also opened my eyes to all those amazing food places in Seoul where it is possible to actually get good food. You really need to know where to go, but once you find them you will be glad you took the extra time. While sharing homemade makgeolli and kimchi at a little restaurant in Insadong (a former hangout for democracy activists during the military regime), we decided that more people should be able to experience what Korean food tastes like when it is made from local, fresh, organic ingredients.

Building on these thoughts, we developed the South Korea Food Sovereignty Tour, a nine-day trip set for May 2012, during which participants would visit the rural areas in Korea where I had met farmers building the unique local markets described above. Organized in collaboration with our new organization Food Sovereignty Tours (Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy in partnership with Global Exchange’s Reality Tours) along with the advocacy groups KPL and KWPA, and Gray’s tour organization O’ngo Food, we hope that this tour will begin to promote a a wider understanding of the forces and reasons behind South Korea’s local food movement.

The larger purpose of this tour is to discover locally-produced Korean food and visit sites of importance to the food movement, which will promote understanding of the key role of farmers and peasants to Korean society over the past 100 years, particularly their role in the democracy and sustainability movements.

Of course, the tour, which I will coordinate, will also provide great fun and satisfaction for any food aficionado, as we provide some unique dining experiences throughout the nine days to reveal what fresh and local Korean cuisine has to offer.

Taking on the corporate food system is a daunting challenge, but Korean farmers have shown their courage and motivation to address the structural injustices of the Korean food system. Through the Korean Food Sovereignty Tours, we want to do our part to promote South Koreans’ basic right to maintain their own local food economy, to the benefit of farmers, producers, distributors, and all South Koreans. We also hope to promote the return of truly delicious and healthy food to South Korea.

The first tour will take place from May 10-19, 2012. Please refer to the websites and for more information.

*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.


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