The young farmer was wearing aviator sunglasses and a black Che Guevara t-shirt. If it wasn’t for the fact that she weighed considerably south of 100 pounds, I might have felt intimidated. But any fear quickly dissipated after she told me with a shy, girlish grin to call her “Lucy” after I had repeatedly mispronounced her Korean name. Far from being an AK-47-toting guerrilla, Lucy was one of 60 organic farmer members who wanted to show me around their Hoengdong Horticultural Coop.

After a six year hiatus I was back in South Korea at the invitation of a provincial planning agency called the Chungnam Development Institute, and their intrepid senior agricultural researcher, Hur Nam-Hyuk.  Our little international team consisted of Vanessa Malandrin, an agricultural researcher with Italy’s University of Pisa, and Professor Yoshimitsu “Tani” Taniguchi from Japan’s Akita University. Our mission: share our “lessons-learned” about direct marketing, food security, and food policy from our respective countries. And, as is common with such collegial exchanges, our pronouncements were often followed by a prolific consumption of kim-chi, stewed octupus, rice wine, and other authentic expressions of Korean cuisine.

The Hoengdong Coop was just one of the many good food stories that Korea had to tell, stories that always humble the so-called “international expert”. It turns out that Hoengdong is the Bethlehem of Korea’s organic food movement, a kind of Emmaus, Pennsylvania where the organic flag was planted in 1976. The “seedpods,” as the Koreans like to call them, sprouted and today Hoengdong has a produce distribution facility that manages $2.5 million in annual organic sales to consumer coops scattered across the country. On the day of our visit, the large walk-in cooler was brimming with cabbage, potatoes, and onions. A pick-up truck overflowing with four feet long sesame plants was being unloaded by three teenage boys. Scattered about the warehouse floor were dozens of large boxes holding beautiful brown chestnuts, which, lacking appropriate machinery, had all been hand-shucked by the four elderly women I had just seen sitting beneath a roadside tree. A combination of high-quality facilities and labor-intensive village style agricultural practices were the order of the day.

Organic farmers and the coop are not isolated expressions of Korean longing for sustainability and self-reliance. They are part of a larger and well-planned scheme that combines food safety, food security, and comprehensive rural development.  Youth and adult education programs that build food awareness and the next generation of organic farmers, a testing and research laboratory that promotes bio-diversity and soil health, and a new community library and retail food coop were all part of an integrated development approach that make Hoengdong a very attractive and livable place. In terms of social engineering it appeared to mirror the biological diversity of nearby rice paddies where, according Hoengdong’s ag lab, 5,668 different species of microorganisms and over 2,000 separate plant varieties contribute to the paddies’ sustainability.

The most striking visual feature of Korea, whether you are in the vibrant metropolis of Seoul or remote country villages, was the way that every square inch of undeveloped land was planted in food crops. Arable land is precious in Korea, and the rugged landscape is stingy with its flat land. But the driving force behind the country’s roadside-to-roadside planting mania is the people’s near obsession with food security. World War Two and the Korean Conflict (“conflict” being a bit of a euphemism after most of the country had been bombed back into the Stone Age) are not distant memories. They wrought poverty, despair, and a ferocious hunger. And even though Korea imports most of its food today, it treasures what its farmers produce.  

But it’s not just what Koreans see when they look in their rearview mirror that scares them. As they look down the road they see agricultural giants like the U.S. and China breathing down their neck with cheap food, and a global food crisis that could one day mean no food. As Dr. Hur put it, “the global food and health crises (obesity, diabetes, hunger) and globalization necessitate the revitalization of local economies, rural community support policies, and control of food at the national and regional levels.”

A dozen rice paddies of perhaps an acre each are arranged in a neat grid that are each set off by irrigation ditches across the small, flat valley floor. Backyards, front yards, and side yards, from a house’s outside walls to fence lines and roadbeds, are planted in vegetables. And the hillsides, right up to a grade so steep that farmworkers may have to don climbing gear to manage them, are planted in ginseng, a valuable cash crop. As this “international food expert’s” journal attests, “every drop of food security is wrung from this lush landscape which gives up it nutrients willingly to communities that respect their centuries old compact with the land. All the parts make sense and fit together with no leftover pieces; functional, not fanciful; utilitarian, not utopian; beauty is not deliberately sought, it’s simply what’s achieved when harmony exists.”

In Seoul we met with Bae Ok Byung, head of Korea’s school food network. Just as farming is important to Koreans so are their children, and unlike lesser developed nations such as the United States, school lunch is universally available and free to every Korean school child. Ms. Bae’s group stays on top of both the national government which funds and gives tacit approval for school lunch, but most of advocacy work is at the provincial level which exercises its own discretion over how it implements the national mandate. Not only is food quality and nutrient content part of the network’s ongoing oversight, so is the push to get local and organic food into the school kitchens. Food education is also one of their interests, and Ms. Bae was very proud to tell me that over 200 public schools in Seoul alone had school gardens. Good practice is supported by good policy, and just to maintain its leadership in the food policy arena, the mayor of the City of Seoul will be announcing the Seoul Food Strategy in mid-October.

But as Dr. Hur alluded to, the global beast is huffing and puffing at Korea’s door. How severe the threat was became readily apparent to me during an interview with Kwan Sok Lee, chairman of the Korean Peasant League that had adamantly opposed the Korea and U.S. Free Trade Agreement. The Peasant League in concert with trade unions, students, and millions of Koreans fought ferociously, sometimes violently, to keep out American beef and to protect Korea’s farmers – 100,000 Korean rice farmers would have gone out of business if rice had been allowed into the agreement. As the chairman put it, “we’re more concerned with food sovereignty than we are with food security,” meaning trade agreements could potentially wipe out the country’s entire agricultural base.

The Kor/US FTA is now a fact – though Korea won on rice, it lost on beef and 1,541 other agricultural items. But the bigger threat in the opinion of Chairman Lee is the pending Korea and China FTA. Vast, government subsidized farms, cheap labor, and proximity give China the ability to swamp Korean agriculture. Already 70 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables purchased in Korea are of Chinese origin. The League is utterly opposed to this FTA as it is to all FTAs, and is prevailing upon the Korean government to protect farmers with subsidies and to do more to purchase Korean-grown food. With a Korean presidential election coming up in December, the League promises to make things very interesting.

The food struggles in Korea are like everywhere else – globalization undermining food sovereignty, food insecurity and health challenges, decline in farmers and an emptying out of the countryside. Yet, the Koreans are pursuing robust, grass-roots efforts to make food sovereignty (and security) top national policy priorities. At the same time, others are demonstrating smart rural development strategies and sound nutrition and local food practices. The challenges are immense, but with a united front on the part of those who want a vibrant national food system, Korea could become a model for the world.