This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The bustling, fast-paced, wired metropolis city of Seoul is what most people know of South Korea. Now the fifteenth largest economy in the world, South Korea’s economy is driven by the exports sector controlled by corporations like Samsung, Hyundai, LG and Daewoo. These chaebols have significant global market share: 37 percent in LCD TVs, 33 percent in hand-held phones and 9 percent in automobiles. The term “chaebol nation” aptly describes South Korea’s economy: the top 30 chaebols account for 82 percent of the country’s exports.
It’s hard to imagine that just two generations ago, farming fueled the nation’s economy. In the 1970s, farmers accounted for half the population; today, they represent only 6.2 percent. South Korea’s rapid transformation from an agrarian economy to a highly industrialized one wasn’t accidental; it was the outcome of the central government’s development and trade liberalization policies that in the early 1980s began to see farming as part of Korea’s past, not its future.
The major blow to Korean agriculture fell in 1994, when South Korea joined the WTO and the Agreement on Agriculture, which effectively forced the government to eliminate quotas and tariffs even while major agriculture exporting blocs like the United States and European Union still gave billions in subsidies to their own farmers. The result of all this liberalization: South Korea is only 20-percent self-sufficient in grain production, compared with the 1970s when it was at 70 percent.
If South Korean chaebols and the politicians that represent them had their way, small farmers—the majority of South Korea’s agricultural sector—would all but disappear under the logic that they are uncompetitive in the global marketplace. They argue that it would be far more efficient for the country to continue to import cheap food from less developed countries—including through the process of acquiring land outside of Korea, like in Africa and South East Asia.
And yet, despite a series of domestic and international policies that have sought to systematically eliminate them, South Korean farmers and peasants are fighting back. They have protested the WTO and bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) for two decades, inspiring peasant farmers throughout the global south to mobilize against the free trade regime. At home, they are trying to build a domestic food sovereignty movement that is ecologically sustainable, socially equitable and economically resilient by producing healthy food, creating dignified rural livelihoods and reviving farming communities.
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Instead of being blinded by South Korean high-tech bling, our eyes should be on South Korea’s food sovereignty movement. It offers the rest of us robust alternatives to the highly consolidated, industrialized, energy-intensive and chemical-dependent globalized food systems that dominate all of our lives.
In August, we co-organized and participated in a Food First Food Sovereignty Tour where we visited South Korea’s leading organic farms and progressive farmer-consumer cooperatives. South Korea is now a leader in the Asian region in organic production, so much so that the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements set up its offices there. And while there were many inspiring organic farms and gardens, two organizations stand out: the Korean Women Peasants Association (KWPA) and Hansalim.
Korean Women Peasants Association
“The food that is being sold by capitalism is sold as a commodity instead of food that sustains us,” explained Jeong-Yeol Kim of My Sister’s Garden, a KWPA project. “That’s why we believe that helping farmers thrive is the only way to fix this food crisis, and the pathway to do so would be to ensure that consumers and every citizen join us in the process of making this come true.”
We visited My Sister’s Garden in the small village of Bongang, where 14 women peasant farmers collectively grow and distribute a weekly “gerubi”—similar to a community supported agriculture (CSA) box—comprised of organic produce they grow and packaged foods they make, such as pickled radish and pear juice. KWPA operates 26 of these producer communities throughout the country. On the day we visited, they were packaging and sending 141 boxes to the Bluebird Children’s Center in the city where parents come to pick up the boxes. “Children today have no connection to the rural land,” explains Jeong-Yeol. Unlike previous generations, many children today no longer have grandparents or relatives living in the countryside who are connected in any way to farming. “So part of the effort of this partnership is to expose children to food production.”
According to Jeong-Yeol, My Sister’s Garden plots were started in response to the devastating impacts of agricultural trade liberalization on the rural economy. “Just within ten years, 10 percent of farmers have fled to the cities here in Korea,” she explained. The reason? The globalized food production system. “We think that the solution to this crisis is to focus on small-scale farmers and give a solid foundation for each farmer to survive.” Each farmer takes on 15 consumer households, earning 1,500,000 won—approximately $1,400—per month. When more consumers wish to join, they encourage a new garden plot to be created so that more women peasant farmers also can earn a dignified income.
Optimizing profits is not the goal; rather, sharing with both consumers and other producers is at the center of the project’s philosophy. They are seeking to bring as many people as possible into an economically viable and socially just system to reverse the decline of rural communities. Despite their prevalence in agriculture, Korean peasant women lack equal rights and opportunities, which makes a project like My Sister’s Garden an even more important empowered space for peasant women to make decisions on all aspects of their production and distribution.
In the small village of Uiseong, just a few hours away from Bongang, KWPA members started a native seed protection program to defend Korean native seeds against corporate takeover. “A lot of our native seeds are being bought up or taken by Syngenta or Monsanto. There are no national Korean domestic seed companies left,” laments Jung-mee Han, a plum, mung bean, rice and garlic farmer and member of KWPA.
“We are all farming different crops,” adds Jeong-mi Kim, president of the Uiseong Native Seed Protectors. “Because we couldn’t take care of all the seeds ourselves, each member is responsible for preserving and cultivating several crops.” They also distribute seeds to low-income farmers who cannot afford them. “We’re not just saving seeds,” explains Jeong-mi. “We are tracking, monitoring and sharing seeds among farmers, and nationally, we sell them to increase consumption of native agriculture.”
These KWPA projects seek to radically alter the structure of the Korean food system and to de-commodify the linkages between consumers and producers. It has not been in vain. In 2012, KWPA was awarded with the Food Sovereignty Prize for their work to defend the rights of small-scale women farmers in Korea and preserve the cultural heritage of Korean native seeds.
In 1986, even before farmers’ markets and CSA programs became popular in the United States, South Korean farmers and consumers began Hansalim. “Han” in Korean means great, one, whole and together, and refers to all living things on earth. “Salim” refers to domestic activities that must be managed to care for one’s home, family, children and community, as well as to revive and give life.
With 2,000 growers and 380,000 consumer members, Hansalim is among the world’s largest and most successful agricultural cooperatives, creating an alternative economy that supports organic farmers and local agriculture, producing healthy food and protecting the environment in the process. Despite the global financial crisis, its sales have been growing annually by 20 percent.
“Farmers at the time realized that they would need to collaborate with consumers in the city,” explains Woon Seok Park, a Hansalim farmer. “Hansalim was created from that point of view, that consumers and producers could make a movement that went beyond mere market transactions to one of understanding each others’ conditions.”
At Hansalim, consumers and growers meet each year to select what and how much they will produce and deliberate on prices for the following season. The coordination on such a massive scale—navigating production, price, harvest, distribution and processing—is, to say the least, remarkable.
It deeply impressed one US organic farmer: David Retsky of County Line Harvest, who reflected back to Hansalim growers, “I come from California where I am just trying to make my business work. We’re competing with other people, so for me to see so many producers in the way of a collective, I’m amazed to see it working quite well.” To further demonstrate their commitment to support Hansalim farmers, consumers established a product stabilization fund in case of bad harvests caused by multiple factors, including rising fuel costs and climate change. Unlike many farmers who have been forced to throw in the towel in recent years due to extreme weather, which has caused crop failures, this fund has been a lifeline to Hansalim farmers who have been able to stay on the farm.
Hansalim farmers know that climate change poses a challenge to the viability of agriculture in Korea. That’s why “we only handle local food,” explains Woon Seok, because “using Hansalim products is a way to combat climate change.” Hansalim doesn’t exclude non-organic growers from the cooperative. While it encourages organic production, proximity is most important because of the high environmental costs of shipping food over long distances, including refrigeration. Hansalim also runs the only livestock feed factory in Korea that uses only local feed sources from nearby farmers. Unlike the majority of livestock farmers, Hansalim livestock is therefore not dependent on feed imports that make up the majority of South Korean grain imports.
Hansalim also informs consumers about the environmental benefits of locally produced food. On each product, it lists the distance and carbon saved by consuming this locally produced good versus one that would have been imported. To make this figure relevant to the lives of consumers, the label also lists an equivalent energy savings, such as the number of hours of electricity used to watch television or to light a fluorescent bulb.
Replacing Competition with Sharing
Hansalim and KWPA are responses to government policies that have liberalized Korean agriculture and sacrificed farming to expand export markets for chaebols. And it’s about to get worse.
South Korea has signed nine bilateral free trade agreements, and twelve more are under negotiation, including a trilateral one with China and Japan. The most significant pact is the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), which, after massive protests in South Korea, passed in 2011. According to Doo Bong Han and Kyung Min Kim of Korea University, under the KORUS FTA, Korean agriculture will lose $626 million in production value. Estimates by the South Korean government also predict that 45 percent of Korean farmers will be displaced under the KORUS FTA.
In recent weeks, South Korea has also signaled its interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the most ambitious free trade agreement the world has ever seen, which would account for 40 percent of the world’s economy. If Seoul joins, it would be the fourth-largest economy in the pact, following the United States, Japan and Australia.
These free trade agreements, it is argued, will strengthen global demand for the high-tech commodities that constitute the core of South Korea’s export-oriented economy—and as such, Korean agriculture must either adapt or perish.
Hansalim and KWPA, however, demonstrate that competition is not inevitable, necessary, or the only path forward. More than 1 million households in Korea today are members of cooperatives like Hansalim, demonstrating the viability and growing interest in alternative food systems. By stressing instead the concept of sharing and the notion that “consumers and producers are one,” these cooperatives have shown that a different economy is possible.
The fate of South Korea’s countryside remains to be seen, but if history is instructive, we know that Korean peasants have endured and resisted. In the legendary Donghak rebellion of 1894, peasant farmers rose up with their bamboo spears against the Chosun King for levying heavy taxes on them to grow Korea’s industrial might and bolster the monarchy’s power against foreign invaders like China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Donghak peasants were influenced by a philosophy that at its center argued for human equality, a radical notion during feudalism. The rebellion was quashed with the help of the Japanese, but the idea that all humans are equal and all living beings are one prevailed—and continues to inspire today’s social movements.
In Korean folklore, the mung bean, or nokdu, is symbolic of the resilient spirit of the Korean peasants. In the harshest conditions, nokdu sprouts and grows, feeding the hungry. In the face of domestic and international policies that have systematically undermined their livelihoods and depressed the countryside, Korean peasants and farmers are sprouting, growing, and inspiring Koreans and global citizens alike by demonstrating that another economy and food system can thrive—even under the harsh conditions of corporate trade regimes.