A Look at Food and Farming Today in South Korea

The following is an article by Anders Riel Müller/ 송연준 Food First Research Fellow and Leader of the upcoming South Korea Food Sovereignty Tour, sponsored by Food First in partnership with Reality Tours.

Korea1I have been immersed in Korean food for so many years now I often forget how unknown and strange it can seem to the uninitiated, i.e. the majority of the world’s population. Korean food has not reached the global status and recognition of its neighboring Japanese and Chinese cuisines. However, the word is spreading through government initiatives, the popularity of Korean Pop Culture, YouTube chefs such as Maangchi, as well as dedicated TV shows like the Kimchi Chronicles on PBS.

Yet even with the growing popularity of Korean food around the world and the proliferation of gourmet restaurants in Seoul, very few foreigners manage to venture beyond the capital and other major cities to get a deeper sense of Korean food culture. Korean rural areas and the agricultural sector have not experienced the same level of breakneck industrialization as the rest of the country. The majority of food producers are still small-scale farmers and food processors. The average farm is still between 2.5 and 5 acres and most food producers are family operations. This is not the impression one gets when walking around in downtown Seoul, the world’s second largest metropolitan area. Here, chain stores and franchises dominate the cityscape. Most people visiting Korea never get beyond the flashing facades of the country’s high tech cities.

This is a shame, because my most amazing food experiences were not in Seoul or Busan; they were in small cities and villages no one outside Korea has ever heard of. I have been lucky through my work and family ties to have eaten at countless local restaurants where the vegetables were grown in the backyard, the kimchi was fermenting in clay pots on the terrace and the beef and pork came from the neighboring farm.

But life in the countryside is not a simple, uncomplicated life. Farmers and small-scale producers are struggling to survive as the onslaught of free trade agreements is threatening their livelihoods.

In Seoul, many restaurants will serve kimchi made in China, beef from the US, Chicken from Brazil and pork from Cambodia. Imported products are sold cheaper than domestic products; and making a living from agriculture and artisan food production is becoming increasingly difficult. Korean farmers have protested the liberalization of agriculture for decades—often at the forefront of demonstrations against the WTO—but the government is continuing to pursue further free trade agreements with large food exporting nations/regions such as Chile, the EU, Australia and the US. As a consequence, food self-sufficiency has dropped to the lowest level in Korean history. Even rice, the staple of all staples, has seen its level drop to the lowest level in modern history.

In addition to free trade agreements, a number of other factors have contributed to the country’s diminished self-sufficiency. Reduced agricultural subsidies, high debt and low food prices are putting farmers under intense pressure. Farmland is also decreasing at alarming rates as the government is incorporating more and more of the country’s already limited farmland into commercial and industrial mega-development projects and recreational “green spaces” for urban dwellers seeking to get away from the city on weekends. As a result, South Korean farmland has dwindled to the lowest levels since 1970.

Small farmers and producers have turned increasingly to promoting food sovereignty as their platform for radically changing the South Korean food system. The concept of food sovereignty provides producers with a comprehensive platform to address the multiple crises of health, environment and economy into one. Few places in the world have seen food sovereignty become such an integrated agenda for social change as in South Korea. The movement incorporates a broad range of social justice organizations seeking to counter the dominant development path that prioritizes the global competiveness of the big conglomerates like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai.

Farmers, producers and consumers organize in different ways, and in many different organizations, but the core of the movement(s) remains a commitment to producing good, healthy and environmentally friendly food at fair and stable prices for both producers and consumers. The movement also seeks to counter the fast-paced lifestyle of modern Korea. Korean food is at its core slow food. Essential Korean ingredients such as kimchi (fermented cabbage), ganjang (soy sauce) and doenjang (soy bean paste) take months of fermentation to mature. The majority of products sold in Korean supermarkets, however, are full of additives to give a “fermented” taste, but most of them have not had the time to ferment as they should. A slower lifestyle starts with letting one’s food mature.

Korean food has its roots in the countryside—far from the bustling megacities and their shopping malls—where family farmers and artisans maintain centuries-old traditions while at the same time building a contemporary movement based on environmentally sound practices, economic fairness and solidarity. In South Korea, food sovereignty is not only about restructuring the food system. It is about social justice, democracy and challenging the values of the materialistic, status-obsessed mainstream culture of Korea.

Thanks to Anders Riel Müller and Food First!

Take Action!

Take ActionTo experience and learn about food sovereignty issues in South Korea yourself, join the Food First Food Sovereignty delegation to South Korea, August 24- Sept 1, 2013.

The following post was written by California Fair Trade Coalition Director, Tim Robertson. Take action today by calling your Representative and tell them NO on Free Trade Agreements with Colombia, Korea, and Panama.

This week President Obama said he understood “the frustration” moving thousands of ordinary citizens to take to the streets of dozens of American cities. But that didn’t keep him from kicking them under the table by sending three pending NAFTA-style trade deals to Congress, despite his campaign promises to oppose them.

With a vote expected tomorrow, it’s up to activists from around the country to let their Members of Congress know that these pro-corporate deals cost jobs and marginalize the workers and the poor in all involved countries, while greasing the wheels for offshoring and further deregulating our financial services industry. The pacts, originally negotiated by President Bush, are expected to cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and we only have hours left to stop them.

Call 1-800-718-1008 to be connected to your Representative to tell them NO on Free Trade Agreements with Colombia, Korea, and Panama.

When you hear the President speak of these deals, you’d think they were job a creating magic box that will restore the manufacturing sector and set us up for years of advantageous competition in Asia. Of course, when you look inside the box, you find that the U.S. International Trade Commission expects them to expand the trade deficit and cost hundreds of thousands of jobs in, you guessed it, the manufacturing sector.

This shouldn’t be too big of a surprise, as we’ve learned from NAFTA that not only do these types of deals eliminate working class jobs on both sides of the border, but they outline a broad swath of extraordinary corporate rights used to subjugate workers and the planet for profit. Free Trade is just one more mechanism that the 1% use to consolidate their power. And they’re trying to expand it right under our noses. Call 1-800-718-1008 to tell your Representative to vote NO.

These FTAs are about corporations vs. people, the CEOs vs. the workers, the 1% vs. the 99%.

Under the guise of “opening up markets,” free trade agreements like these are giant corporate handouts that enable job offshoring, deregulate financial services, and empower corporations to challenge public interest laws as basic as minimum wage and environmental protections. Get this, in order to receive restitution, corporation need only prove that domestic laws “expropriated” expected profits – you can’t make this stuff up.

Call now, 1-800-718-1008.

The very nature of free trade leads to a “race to the bottom” on regulatory issues, as producers seek the cheapest environments to make goods, and in the corporate world that means the place with the worst labor laws and environmental regulation. Many countries lower such standards to attract investment and corporations are more than happy to take advantage of the cheaper environment, frequently offshoring U.S. jobs.

No where is this more apparent than in Colombia. Since 1986, over 2800 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia, often by corporate and/or state backed paramilitary groups. To this day, Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to try to organize a union, with 51 union organizers murdered in 2010 alone, more than in the rest of the world combined.

In Panama, opaque banking laws and low corporate tax rates have made the country a tax haven, home to 400,000 registered corporations for a population of just 4 million. Many of these firms are just US shell corporations hiding money for tax purposes. And we want to deregulate financial services exchanges with this country?

In the South Korea deal, American pharmaceutical companies negotiated higher prices for medicines purchased by the Korean single-payer health care, threatening the viability the system. Meanwhile, US car companies are allowed to sell cars in Korea that don’t even meet Korean emission standards. And some would suggest that these deals improve public health and are good for the environment?

I don’t think so. By definition, these deals are for the benefit of those with the resources to move capital (or jobs) from one country to another. As the Occupy Wall Street protests are highlighting, that’s only 1%. Join the 99% by fighting back on these trade deals today, because literally, tomorrow is too late.

Call your Representative TODAY at 1-800-718-1008.