In early October, an international event in the international City of New York, honored the Korean Women Peasant Association, a group that celebrates food production in the local communities of Korea. These women are encouraging vegetable gardens, saving native seeds, and encouraging local food in local schools, where the kids attend from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thanks to the US and our trade agreements, however, they have an uphill fight.
Korea is so good at producing technological goods like cars and computers that they enjoy a huge balance of trade. To offset the debt, other countries send agricultural goods. Their so called “free-trade agreements” or FTAs undermine the centuries-long Korean peasant culture, sending young people to the cities to seek work. As George Naylor, Iowa farmer said, “It’s not free trade, it’s forced trade.”
One of the earlier FTAs, by Korea with Chile, insisted that Korean consumers use Chilean grapes. All the Korean grape farmers have now been put out of business, which means that they’ve become farmers of other fruits. That glut on the market means that fruit prices have fallen so that nobody can make money raising fruits. For women, of course, the forced poverty also means increased violence against women. Centuries of tradition have been trashed and people are in despair.
KOR-US, the Korean-US FTA approved last year, includes a long list of items that we can export and they have to take. Beef and pork are already putting Korean farmers out of business, appearing in their markets without a country-of-origin label. To the environmentalist, like Bill McKibben, it’s obvious that the amount of energy it takes to move these foods, especially if they’re frozen, is more than the amount of energy they deliver to the eater. To the corporate flak, the point is to dismantle the local food system. Then, if you run out of energy, to re-build it but with corporate techniques and logos.
The US is particularly good at raising grains, and, for Korean consumers, that means rice. The cheap US rice is pouring into Korean markets and undermining the peasant farmers who have made Korea self-sufficient in the past. Why is our rice so cheap? Because the market price, paid by industry, barely covers the cost of production. American farm policy makes rice culture profitable by paying subsidies to the farmers.
Interestingly, for American consumers, this rice has been found to contain arsenic, which Korean consumers object to. But never mind. If it’s good enough for Americans, we reason, it’s good enough for Asians. We won’t try to fix the problem. Instead, we’ll keep sending it. Forced trade, remember?
Geum-Soon Yoon, representative of the Korean Women Peasant Association, was able to travel through the Midwest to talk about food sovereignty as guests of Food and Water Watch, National Family Farm Coalition and Why Hunger, some of the many organizations that endorse and applaud the prize. In Des Moines, she told an audience of members of Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom, “Through years of food sovereignty movement we have become more and more convinced that we have to develop a food system where womens’ rights and customers’ rights are protected, that food is not a commodity but a basic human right, and that we will be able to impact pressing global challenges such as food crises, global climate change crises and energy crises by promoting food sovereignty. Small farmers around the world are the major food producers ...”
When KOR-US (the Korea-US FTA) was being discussed, Korean farmers objected and so did their consumers. The voices were ignored. This is something that US farmers recognize well. Corporations, you see, have gotten so big that they manipulate governments all over the world. For the fingerprints on KOR-US, look for Smithfield, Cargill, Monsanto, John Deere. Yes, these are the same US corporations you have in your retirement account.
On Oct. 16, World Food Day, the much-ballyhooed World Food Prize was awarded. This prize honors someone who follows in the steps of Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. As they put it, ““The World Food Prize is the foremost international award recognizing — without regard to race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs — the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.”
In Des Moines, on World Food Day, there were banners flying from the light poles advertising the World Food Prize. Norman Borlaug is an Iowa native, you see, and Borlaug made it possible for farmers to dump a lot of nitrogen on crops, pop the yields into the stratosphere, and still harvest with mechanical equipment. He also, perhaps unwittingly, made it possible to move thousands of farmers off the land and consolidate food production into a few corporate hands. We should be, instead, working for, and celebrating, food sovereignty.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2012
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