On November 10, 2014 at the APEC Summit in Beijing, President Park Geun Hye and General Secretary Xi Jinping announced that the Korea-China free trade agreement negotiations were “practically concluded.”Gyeonghee Yang is a consumer of the Korean Women Peasant’s Association monthly agriculture box scheme. She also volunteers with My Sister’s Garden, a project also run by the KWPA. She believes that consumers’ fates are entwined with that of producers’, and that they must work together to change the future of Korea’s agriculture. On Monday, November 24th, Jeong Eun Hwang and I met with her to discuss the Korea-China FTA from the perspective of a Korean consumer. (Interview by Stephanie Park, Interpretation by Jeong Eun Hwang). *This interview is the end of a 4-part expose by the International Strategy Center on the impact of the Korea-China FTA on Korean civil society.*
How did you as a consumer become interested in ethical consumption?
I quit my job 2-3 years ago. While I was working, I didn’t have time to consider ideas of consuming and consuming the ‘right’ way. After I quit, I felt that I should use my education to work to improve society. I first learned about the concept of ‘food sovereignty’ through a friend who was involved with the KWPA and their postings on social media. So I began to participate in the box scheme offered by the KWPA, and also began trying to find ways that I could contribute to their vision as a consumer. Through working with the KWPA, I began looking further into the issue of food justice and food sovereignty. An especially important text for me was the Nyeleni Declaration on Food Sovereignty; I was shocked when I read it, and I also thought, “Maybe this is the answer to our future.” Food sovereignty is important to all human beings. As consumers, we should have the right to choose our own food that’s been produced sustainably and safely, and that is culturally proper. It seems funny to even have to say that that’s a basic right every human being should have, but the reality is that we live in a world where food sovereignty is taken away from us.
I’m not sure if I’m a ‘conscientious consumer,’ though. I think it’s hard to have a definite definition of what that looks like; rather, it can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. I’m not always doing the absolute right thing in terms of my consumption. But I know about and believe in the idea of food sovereignty, and I think there’s a problem with the current structure of food in Korea.
What would you say is the general consumer reaction to the FTA passing?
The general reaction seems to be that, as with all FTAs, people expect that prices will drop across the board. As for me, when I talk to friends, I ask them, “Am I a Korean or Peruvian citizen?” Because in relation to food consumption, these days sometimes it’s hard to tell. As an example, during the summer, it was really hot, so I ate a lot of frozen blueberries. One day I got curious and checked where they were from – and it turned out they were all from Peru. When the FTAs first began to pass, I thought it wouldn’t affect me that much – I don’t go out looking to buy and consume imported things. But I found that it already had. It’s not that I had consciously made the choice one way or the other as to whether I would consume foreign products – I didn’t really consider it that much – but I expected to at least know if I was. Instead, I found I was already unintentionally doing so. The government and society pushes you to do so – they make it hard to differentiate between domestic and international products and incentivize you to buy the international imported items by selling them at a cheaper price than domestic products.
The common argument is that the consumer can only benefit from the FTA passing; for example, market competition improves and prices go down, which is good for you, the consumer. Do you agree with that line of thinking?
I disagree with that statement for two reasons. The first is because after the Korea-EU FTA was finalized, people expected the prices of luxury brand items to go down – but actually, the prices increased. So FTAs don’t give consumers the benefits that they claim to.
The second reason is that, even in cases where this is true, it’s still not good for consumers in the long run with regards to food sovereignty. For example, the blueberries I ate this summer were cheaper and more convenient, but I feel that my decision to consume them will return to me as a boomerang effect, as it will do for the rest of society. If we consume more foreign produce, then foreign sales will increase; the, Korean food sales will decrease, and it will negatively impact the production of Korean food in the future.
Why is this a problem? For example, the Philippines, used to produce their own rice – but now, they have to import it all. With the Korea-China FTA, our rice markets will open, and perhaps the same thing will happen to us, since they also did not have a vision for their country’s agriculture. Sure, we can buy and eat a cheaper price now, but it will have an impact on us in the future. I feel guilty about it as well – I am not a model consumer. But the policy decisions that are being made are so crazy – what choice do I have but to make the decisions that I have as a result?
Are consumer groups organizing any protests against the FTA? What are your own personal plans to oppose it?
I don’t have in-depth knowledge of what consumer groups are doing, but I know that there is one social media webpage on food sovereignty that held an education awareness initiative, encouraging people to learn about food sovereignty, FTAs, and to educate other people about these things – and a lot of regular people joined and became educated through that. There are also anti-FA demonstrations going on – I didn’t participate, but I know that consumer cooperatives are participating in that as well.
Solidarity amongst the different sectors is crucial, because we as individuals have little power. We have to gather together in order to gain strength. At the same time, though, I know how difficult that is. So, what should I do? I can buy Korean produce, and participate in demonstrations, but as an individual, my contributions feel like they have little power. Truthfully, I’m not optimistic about things. The FTA is so powerful – it’s like a tsunami. What can we do against it? But I am continuing to think about how we can create solidarity; the path is not clear, but it is important to fight nevertheless.
Why do you think it’s important for consumers to act in solidarity with those whose livelihoods are directly affected by the FTA, such as farmers and small business owners?
There absolutely needs to be consumer solidarity with the farmers and small to midsized business owners, because humans are social animals. Consumers can’t exist alone as consumers; if there are no farmers, there can’t be any consumers. We need to think of ourselves as a community, where the goal is for all people to live well together, because our welfares are ultimately tied up together – you can’t separate ‘farmers’ and ‘farmers issues’ from that of the consumer.
As a consumer, what would your ideal vision of Korea’s food system look like, and what would that require from others (be it farmers, markets, the government, or other sectors)?
I think the most important thing is sustainability, to have a system where farmers can cultivate constantly and where their livelihood is secured. The Korean government doesn’t have a real policy on agriculture, which leaves Korean farmers vulnerable. For example, transnational seed company Monsanto has already entered the Korean market; most people aren’t aware that this has happened, but the result is that farmers are forced to purchase seeds and take up monoculture. If this continues, the biodiversity of Korea will be lost, and food will become a weapon. A better alternative is garden farming, which is traditional Korean farming. Through that, we can replant native seeds, and can plant many different crops so that the soil’s nutrients are sustained.
The Korean government’s policy is lacking, because it’s not for the farmers. The leaders don’t even think about the problem. Sometimes I even wonder: do they even know what agriculture is? I can actually understand that mindset to an extent, because when I was busy working, I also didn’t have time to think about such issues. But there needs to be an overall structural change. People need to be able to have a choice, and their choices should not be taken away. We also need to protect food for the next generation so that they can have the same rights and same choices that we have. To make all of this possible, we need to change the social system; and consumers need to be aware of that. That’s why education is so important – to show agriculture’s link to the most basic aspects of life.
The readership of the ISC’s World Current Report includes international readers: what would you like to say to them as a Korean consumer?
First, I am reminded of something I heard about ten years ago, that the Korean company Daewoo was doing a land grab in Madagascar. Under the Lee Myung Bak administration, they leased land there to grow agricultural products for Korea. Madagascar’s government supported the deal, but it caused a lot of problems for the people of Madagascar. I was shocked when I heard the news about what had happened – it was at that time that I started to hate the concept of food security. I hate that term because I think it’s dangerous to see food as a security issue, because if we see it that way, food becomes a weapon and a justification to harm and oppress other countries. So I want to apologize to the people of Madagascar as a member of Korea society.
Secondly – I want to reemphasize the fact that there’s nothing one individual can do alone – that’s why we need solidarity. Global solidarity is definitely needed. I would like to recommend that people read the Nyeleni Declaration on Food Sovereignty if they haven’t already, in the hopes that it will inspire them as it inspired me.
And lastly, I would like to tell everyone a message, which is also my favorite quote from the Nyeleni declaration: “Now is the time for food sovereignty!”
 The Nyeleni declaration on food sovereignty was produced at the Forum for Food Sovereignty in Sélingué, Mali, in 2007. The forum was a result of people from grassroots movements all over the world coming together to discuss how they could shape the development of a sustainable food system. To read the full declaration, visit: http://nyeleni.org/spip.php?article290.
 In the past, the Philippines used to be self-sufficient in rice. Now, however, it is one of the world’s top importers of rice; in 2007, it was listed by the US Department of Agriculture as the number one importer of milled rice. This proved to be a problem during the 2008 world food price crisis when international rice prices skyrocketed, leading to national hunger problems. According to the Philippine Human Rights Information Center, “the country’s transformation from self-sufficiency to international dependency indicates a lot about how the government has been fulfilling its obligations in relation to the right of Filipinos to food.” To see the full report, visit: http://philrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/World-food-crisis-and-the-Filipinos-right-to-food.pdf.
 In 2008, South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics announced plans to buy a 99-year lease on a million hectares in Madagascar with intentions to industrially farm corn and palm oil. Production was mainly earmarked for South Korea, in the name of lessening dependence on imports. The plan was put on hold indefinitely in early 2009 after it earned massive international criticism.