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Free trade imperils Korea's farm sector

Community cooperatives a better solution to food security

  • Kim Young-gil, Seoul
  • Korea
  • July 18, 2012
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In South Korea, onions and garlic should be planted during autumn and harvested in early summer. But this year drought hampered the growth of such vegetables and lowered their quality, and their prices have risen sharply.

To stabilize prices, the government has decided to import duty-free vegetables.

In addition to the effects of global climate change, the government’s poor decision-making on recent trade agreements has made life more difficult for the nation’s farmers and precipitated a crisis in the sector.

Over widespread protests, the government ratified a free trade deal with the United States, which came into effect in January.

Three months later, the government began to broker a similar deal with China, the world’s second-largest economy.

Critics have viewed the agreement with China as a way to boost the sale of electronics and cars at the expense of the agricultural sector.

The government justified the move by saying the rise in revenues from hi-tech goods would have a trickle-down effect for farmers, but it failed to explain how a rise in imports of agricultural goods would not hurt exports.

China already has the advantage over Korea in its low agricultural production costs.

Korean farmers can’t compete on the world market because of the high costs they pay for land and labor.

Even before the free trade deal with China was announced, Chinese agricultural products accounted for more than 50 percent of local agricultural markets.

How then will Korean farmers be able to support themselves in the future?

The country’s self-sufficiency rate for grains stood at 27 percent in 2010, which ranked the lowest among countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Further, the recent drought in the US, the world’s largest grain exporter, would make global grain prices rise.

If the government continues to push free trade deals under such conditions, local agricultural infrastructure will collapse and the country will not be able to deal with what some say is an approaching global food crisis.

It is telling that the government has refused to disclose the research results of its study of the impact of the China trade deal. Perhaps they don’t have the confidence in the deal that they are trying to inspire among the Korean people.

The Corean Catholic Farmers’ Movement (CCFM) has for decades promoted organic farming as a way to conserve land and other resources, shifting in the 1990s from advocating for the rights of workers to ecological concerns.

The CCFM has also set up cooperatives whereby city parishioners buy food from CCFM farmers through the Woori-nong Saligi (Save our Farmland) program established in 1994.

This movement promotes the idea that life cannot be commercialized but exists through the sharing and serving of God, and it opposes free trade agreements because they threaten food security, which is a problem for everyone in Korea.

The CCFM is leading an effort to promote sustainable agriculture rooted in community support. This includes the building of cooperatives where small and middle-sized or family farms work together to secure economies of scale and share their products with urban populations.

In this process, farmers as well as urban residents would participate as producers through “weekend farmer” programs, thereby recognizing that solutions, as well as problems, must be the result of coordinated efforts from everyone.

Kim Young-gil is the vice-president of the Corean Catholic Farmers' Movement

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