Yonjae Paik has unearthed the remarkable history of how organic farming became a social movement in South Korea.
He is currently a PhD student in the School of Culture, History and Language and is a member of Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s ARC Laureate Project ‘Informal Life Politics’.
Yonjae explains that the first Korean organic farmers were influenced by two surprising factors: Denmark and Christianity.
‘Denmark wasn’t a big country, but farmers saw it as a strong and modern agricultural country. For Christian intellectuals in the early twentieth century, Denmark was an ideal model to develop Korea’s rural areas,’ he says. ‘They wanted to develop rural areas with their own hands using adult education and cooperatives. So they needed an alternative ideology to combat the government’s influence and justify their movement. The church provided this.’
In the 1970s, Park Chung-hee’s military government implemented a program of high-yield rice farming and pesticide use to maximise food production and support the development of the manufacturing industry.
Some Christian farmers rejected this program, as they believed that pesticide use was against God’s will. They formed an organisation called Jeongnonghoe (the Association for Righteous Farming) so that they could practice organic farming and preach their Christian worldview. They built organic farming communes and developed international exchanges with Japanese organic farmers.
Unsurprisingly, these farmers faced criticism from the government and their communities for their work.
‘Until the early 1990s, if a farmer practised organic farming he was suspected of being pro-North Korean because he didn’t follow the instructions of the South Korean government. It was a national imperative to practice chemical farming to produce more,’ Yonjae explains.
Organic farming was also a matter of survival. During the 1980s, 80% of farmers experienced pesticide poisoning, over 30% required immediate treatment, and over 1000 died from pesticide exposure each year.
Urban consumers became aware of the consequences of pesticide use in the 1980s, and helped the organic farming movement grow through the formation of consumer cooperatives. The first organic consumer cooperative, called Hansalim (‘sharing lives’), proposed an ‘urban-rural community’ and emphasised that farmers were responsible for consumers’ health, while consumers were responsible for farmers’ livelihoods.
Hansalim organised consumers in Seoul, held farmers’ markets and festivals, and released a philosophical manifesto in 1989. While Hansalim has changed since the 1990s, it continues to keep the tradition of Korean organic farming alive and 596,000 households were members of the cooperative in 2017.
Yonjae says that South Korean farmers have a distinctive commitment to ideology that has made them a key example of informal life politics in East Asia.
‘I am trying to show the existence of these community-based social movements in South Korea outside of national politics and economic markets. These movements are not only about organic farming, but are a wider criticism of Korea’s state-oriented, capitalist society.’