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Green-fingered South Korean nuns toil to safeguard creation

Little Servants of the Holy Family nuns consider their participation in a growing 'seed war' part of their apostolic mission

Green-fingered South Korean nuns toil to safeguard creation

The Yongmun Nazareth House Ecological Community, led by Little Servants of the Holy Family nuns, has been pioneering cultivation and preservation of hundreds of local crop varieties. (Photo supplied)

For nearly seven years, a green Catholic community in South Korea has been leading an extraordinary battle for cultivation and preservation of hundreds of local crop varieties that could otherwise become extinct.

The Yongmun Nazareth House Ecological Community, led by Little Servants of the Holy Family nuns, in Yangpyeong, Suwon Diocese, has so far preserved seeds of some 200 local crop varieties including beans, cabbages, radishes, tomatoes, onions, courgettes, melon, burdock, spinach, chard, leek and lettuce.

Six nuns from the congregation have been leading the campaign to collect and cultivate local crops as well as to train farmers near the Yongmun community. They also distribute crop seeds to farmers who cannot afford to buy them.

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Every year, the nuns produce crops from the local seeds on 6,475 square meters of land on a barren hilly area. A corner of the land is used for cultivation of local rice.

The efforts of the nuns take inspiration from Pope Francis’ groundbreaking environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise be to you, my Lord).

Sister Emma Baek-seon, one of the coordinators of the community, says the preservation and distribution of the indigenous varieties of seeds is both the fulfilment of their ancestors’ legacy and a religious vocation to care for creation.

“It is our sacred duty to hand over healthy and fertile seeds to our next generation,” Sister Emma said.   

The initiative is the brainchild of Sister Emma and Sister Kim Mi-suk, who vowed to create a reliable alternative to the monopoly of commercial companies that sell hybrid seeds at higher prices but don’t guarantee a bountiful, organic harvest.  

“Most seeds used for farming nowadays are developed for money, but they are often infertile and not good for reaping good harvest. Also, the seeds bought from the company are modified in a way that it won’t be used for next year. That means you have to buy seeds from the company again,” Sister Emma explained.

For years, the nun has visited numerous farmhouses in villages of Yangpyeong county, collecting native seeds from farmers. Crops were were cultivated on the community land and the sisters started preserving these varieties.

Sister Emma has been interested and involved in various ecological projects for more two decades. In that time the monopoly of seed companies and plight of Korean farmers saddened her.

Together with the sisters of her community, she decided to pursue an “indigenous seed dream” against the rising tide of genetically engineered agricultural products that were flooding the land and tables of Korean people.

The situation continued to worsen as multinational companies obtained exclusive rights to produce and sell genetically modified seeds including popular crops like radish, cabbage and pepper.

The nuns consider their participation in a growing “seed war” part of their apostolic mission. They have also been following a no-pesticide policy as they cultivate and preserve seeds from the crops.

While they pushed for their campaign for indigenous seeds, they also collaborated with like-minded groups and communities including the Catholic Farmers’ School, Pulmu School and a private organization called Native Seed Dream to step up their efforts.

Sister Kim Mi-suk has studied agricultural science and graduated as a qualified agricultural and seed scientist.

The ecological community has also launched social awareness campaigns to promote the cause of the indigenous seed dream.

In 2018, a report on indigenous seed collection was published that documented achievements of seed collection. In 2019, the Indigenous Seed Conservation Research Group was formed with local farmers and organizations.

In collaboration with the Sungga Consumers’ Association, the nuns have been organizing field workshops on seeds and crops in the fields since 2017. Participants can buy seeds and seedlings during their visit. During the program dishes made from local crops are displayed.

Last year the program was scaled down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This year the nuns have started a special school for local students to teach them organic farming in their gardens when they have no class. The school is scheduled for every Friday from March 12 to Nov. 27.

Local seeds are precious ancestral resources that must be preserved for food sovereignty, Sister Emma says.

Little Servants of the Holy Family is a South Korea-based international Catholic religious order founded in 1945 and confirmed by Pope Pius XII in 1949. The congregation is active in 13 archdioceses and dioceses in South Korea and also in Bolivia, Argentina, Italy, the Philippines, Vietnam, China and Cambodia.

The congregation is involved in various apostolic missions including family and spiritual ministries, education, social welfare, medical services and ecological apostolate, mostly serving poor and marginalized communities.

Father Pierre Singer (1910-92), popularly known as Father Seong Jae-deok, a French missionary priest in Korea from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) founded the Little Servants of the Holy Family.

The missionary priest, dismayed over the suffering of Korean people under Japanese occupation during World War II, envisioned a religious order that would “love poverty itself, the poor and the little ones.”

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