Just an hour outside of the chaos and pollution of Seoul, the city of Namyangju lies in an area known for its clean water, magnificent natural scenery and the health and longevity of its residents. It is here - where the long history of traditional handicrafts is still practiced by locals and an organic farming movement is growing rapidly - that small-scale producers from across Asia and Oceania have been arriving for AsiO Gusto, what will be Slow Food’s first international event on the continent.
Asia is a continent where the issues that Slow Food is working on are highly evident: industrialization, monocultures, nutrition security…” said Paolo Di Croce, Secretary General of Slow Food. “South Korea imports 40% of its national dish, kimchi. It’s crazy that even a country with such strong traditions is still following the rules of the global market. Slow Food is less developed here compared to other parts of the world so AsiO Gusto is a great opportunity to bring together these delegates to share knowledge, build friendships and develop an understanding that farmers are facing the same problems everywhere.
Reading that South Korea imports more than 40% of its national dish, kimchee, was startling. Where is most of South Korea's kimchee being made? China.
South Korea imports 90% of its food, much of it from China and the U.S.
Seoul, the world’s second largest metropolitan area, is dominated by chain stores and franchises. Seoul's restaurants serve kimchi made in China, vegetables from Australia, fruit from Pakistan and the US, fish from Norway, rice from China and Thailand, and industrially farmed meat from the US.
Small-scale farmers and food processors are still a huge part of traditional Korean culture and an important part of food production. The average farm is still between 2 and 5 acres and most food producers are family-run.
However local family farmers and food producers are under threat of "free trade" pacts (including with China) that have threatened their survival. South Korean food self-sufficiency has dropped to the lowest level in history. Farmland has dropped to the lowest level since 1970 because Seoul has incorporated vast amounts of farmland into commercial and industrial development projects and recreational “green spaces” for weekend urbanite tourists. Namyangju, the "organic city," is one of South Korea's green travel destinations.
The Korean organic, slow, family farmer and food producer movement centers on food and cultural sovereignty and the survival of centuries-old food traditions. In parallel with the global movement, the movement is ultimately about democracy, environmental sustainability, simplicity, as well as safe and healthy food production.
" Cooperative Small-Scale Farming Movements Make Strides Around the World"
(Food Tank, April 3, 2013)
The Korean Women Peasants Association (KWPA), a organization of women farmers in South Korea, gained recognition recently when it won the Food Sovereignty Prize in 2012 for its work to promote food sovereignty, defend small-scale Korean farmers, and end violence against women. KWPA created the Sister Gardens initiative, which supports local food production by linking women farmers directly with local consumers. KWPA also began the Native Seed Campaign to safeguard biodiversity within agroecosystems and preserve native seeds."Korean Food, Land and Democracy: A Conversation with Anders Riel Müller* (Christine Ahn, March 19, 2013, Korea Policy Institute)
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."South Korea's Food Security Alarm" (John Berthelsen, Asia Sentinel, April 29, 2011)
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.
...South Korea...imports more than 90 percent of its food from overseas, including almost all of its wheat and corn."South Korean Food Imports At 80-90%" (Martin Frid, Kurashi, Oct. 6, 2011)
The government recently bought more than 325,999 hectares in Mongolia as part of its effort to develop an overseas food base to procure more food resources. That is after the Daewoo chaebol was stymied in its effort in 2008 to lease 1.3 million hectares of Madagascar – almost half the country's arable land -- for 99 years....As many as 60 South Korean companies are involved in farming in 16 countries, harvesting some 87,000 metric tons of grain from 24,000 hectares of farmland, according to Anders Riel Muller, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, USA...
... Samsung Economic Research Institute... issued a 16-page report on food security. The report, titled New Food Strategies in the Age of Global Food Crises...advocates that "it is necessary to secure foreign bases for food production through overseas agricultural development," providing comprehensive support for domestic firms striving to build food production bases abroad," and pay for it through overseas agricultural development funds. Among other things, the report advocates that the government draw up a roadmap for agricultural cooperation to develop food resources in the starvation-ridden North Korea "through inter-Korean agricultural cooperation is useful in the context of building South Korea's overseas food base, while at the same time preparing for surging food demand upon unification."
Food stability in South Korea has experienced a continuous decline, caused by rapidly increased grain price volatility and intensified import source concentration as the western countries, particularly the United States and the European Union, devote more and more of their corn production to biofuels. It is estimated that 35 percent of corn production is now going into biofuels. In addition, the report says, "food safety fell to its lowest level in 2008...
The report notes with something akin to alarm that the international grain market "is subject to an oligopoly of the four major global grain conglomerates: Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, LDC, and Bunge," which have the power not only to perform grain trading functions but to "affect government policy with respect to international trade and agricultural markets using their massive capabilities to obtain information worldwide. South Korea imports 80 percent of its gran through the four. The four giants, the report continues, "exercise tremendous leverage over the worldwide food industry. Business for grain majors has expanded beyond traditional trading of crops to seeds, fertilizers, food and food processing, finance, and bio-energy production. At times, the four grain majors have encroached on consumer welfare by exerting their influence on agricultural producers, or by creating an oligopoly regime."
As food imports have increased, so has anxiety over agricultural product safety, the report notes, with "spiraling increases in the share of GMO food imports, which have risen from about 30 percent to over 50 percent in 2008, "posing a greater threat to food safety."
...South Korea's big problem, according to Anders Muller, is partly to history, in which Japanese colonizers'only interest was to convert Korea in to a supplier of food and other products to fuel their imperial ambitions. In doing so, the Japanese administrators allied themselves with the ruling landlord elite. By the 1920s, the majority of peasants in Korea had been reduced to tenant farmers delivering up to 50 percent of their harvests in taxes."
South Korea, Muller writes, "has historically shown little interest in its agricultural sector throughout the post Korean War period. The rural population and agriculture was primarily regarded as a source of cheap food and cheap labor for the country's dizzying industrial development." Agricultural investment dried up as successive dictators like Park Hung Hee neglected the countryside for industrialization...
I was rather shocked to learn that South Korea imports almost all its food from China and the United States. Nearly 90% is imported, according to Asian Sentinel - and that includes almost all its wheat and corn, quoting a Samsung report from SERI World. Some 16 countries supply the country with other food items...