Sunday, November 13, 2011

Purchasing Power: Organic Certifications in Korea

(from an upcoming issue of Daegu Compass)

After hearing that I’ve been here for five years, Koreans often ask me what it is that I miss most about the USA. My family? My friends? My house? My mother tongue? The food? All good guesses, and I’d hate to try to say which one sits at the top of my list. But there’s something else that nobody ever seems to consider: being able to give back to my society as much as I take from it. In a word, responsibility.

It’s nearly impossible for foreigners here to take an active role in standing up for our beliefs, in working to make the city we live in a better place. I’ve heard about and met so many people who were vegetarians, foodies, activists, or volunteers back home, who have been reduced to earner/consumers, not through any particular fault of their own, but simply because it’s so difficult to be anything else here. We can’t vote, and even if we could, how would we have any idea who to vote for? We don’t have the freedom to remodel our homes to make them more energy efficient. We have a tough time searching out and participating in meaningful volunteer opportunities. And, even at our schools and hagwons, where we all see a million things we’d like to fix, we’re often next to powerless. It almost seems like the best we can hope to do is take shorter showers and turn off the lights when we leave the room.

There is one thing we can do, though, that’s just as easy here as it was back home, one instance in which it doesn’t matter that you look and speak different from just about everyone else. I’m talking about shopping. If you’re one of those who have decided to put their idealism on hold, I want to let you know that there’s no need to do so. Your cash here is just as good as anyone else’s, and there are tons of ways to put it to good use.

Personally, I’m into food. Food is at the nexus of so many crucial issues, from environmental degradation to women’s rights, from individual health to social justice, from the slow death of rural communities to the explosion of cities and the expansion of corporations. Name a social or political problem – I guarantee you that someway, somehow, food links in. And, because we all eat three or more times a day, we have thousands of opportunities a year to make our dollars (yeah, ok, not dollars, but whatever) count.

One of the single best things you can do for your health, for society’s, and for the planet’s, is to support local, organic farmers as much as possible. This cuts down on fertilizer in the water, reduces the amount of pesticide in your food, decreases the amount of fossil fuel used to bring your food to your plate, tends to keep farms small and diversified, and leaves all the plants and animals involved – including us! – safer and stronger.

Or, at least, so one hopes. It all depends on what the word “organic” means. I thought I pretty much knew the answer, but in order to get a little more clarity, I decided to talk to someone a bit more informed. So, on a recent trip to Sweet Persimmon Village in Changwon, Gyeongsangbukdo, where I occasionally volunteer by picking persimmons or teaching kids how to sow and harvest potatoes and rice, I sat down for a chat with Mr. Gang Chang-guk (강창국). Mr. Gang’s family has been farming persimmons for several generations, and Mr. Gang himself graduated with an MS in Agricultural Science from Seoul National University. He has been studying and experimenting with organic agriculture for years, and his farm produces persimmons at each level of certification, in addition to rice, watermelons, strawberries, and all the food that he and his family need for the year. He pulled out a bunch of documents and we went through them together. Here’s what I learned:

Various public and private groups are authorized to grant certifications to farmers; no matter which one the farmer chooses to go through, though, all certifications in Korea share some basic ground rules, laid out by the National Agricultural Products Management Service (NAQS). First of all, farmers who apply for certifications of any type have to be willing to open their farm to inspectors at any time, and have to have produce samples inspected before sale. Second, they must only use government-approved varieties of low-impact fertilizers and pesticides, always keeping on hand detailed information about which and how much. Third, they have to keep detailed records of their yields and who they sell their produce to. Fourth, they must demonstrate a constant yearly decline in the amount of pollutants in the soil and water at their farms. Fifth, they may not make use of any GMO seeds.  Finally, there are some other non-binding standards that farmers are expected to work towards. They are encouraged to rotate crops, to plant beans and clover to restore the health of the soil, to refrain from treating their products with x-rays, and to take care with their own natural fertilizers and pesticides so as not to disturb farmers nearby. All of these rules make for healthy soil, plants, animals, people, and communities.

The lowest-level certification is “저농약농산물.” Jeo is Chinese for low, while nong, yak, nong, san, and mul mean “farm,” “medicine/poison,” “farm,” “production,” and “stuff,” respectively. Produce carrying this Low-Pesticide Produce certification
  • has been grown with less than half the chemical fertilizer used on standard farms
  • has been sprayed with pesticide less than half as frequently as standard produce (at regulated doses)
  • has been grown without weedkiller; pesticide is applied only to the produce itself
  • has had its final pesticide treatment more than twice as far away from the harvest dates as the minimum required by law.
The mid-level certification is “무농약농산물,” where Mu means “none.” Produce bearing this Pesticide-Free Produce certification
    • meets or exceeds all the criteria for the Low-Pesticide Produce certification
    • has been grown without any chemical pesticides at all
    • has been grown with less than one third the chemical fertilizer of standard produce

This certification, when applied to animals, is called “무항생제축산물,” where Hang means “combat,” saeng means “life,” je means “drug”, and chuk means “animal.” Meat, eggs, and dairy with this certification come from animals that have been given feed without added antibiotics or antimicrobials.

The highest-level certification is “유기농농산물,” in which Yugi means “organic.” Organic produce:
    • meets all the standards for Low-Pesticide and Pesticide-Free produce certifications, plus
    • has been grown without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides for a minimum of two years for annual plants and three years for perennial ones

Meat that has been certified organic is called “유기농축산물” and, in addition being antibiotic-free, has been given feed that itself meets the criteria for organic certification.

When you’re shopping, keep an eye out for these emblems They’re usually placed prominently on the front of packages, and, ideally, will have some information just underneath about who certified the product and precisely what certifications it lives up to. NAQS-certified products are available in all of the Local/Organic specialty shops around Daegu, as well as in most mid- and large-size supermarkets. Isn’t it fantastic that you can support organic farmers, and all that they stand for, simply by buying and preparing whole, healthy, delicious food? Chow down.

For information about Daegu stores specializing in eco-friendly produce, to receive weekly or monthly organic produce deliveries, or for more on other ways of making a greener Daegu, check out the group Daegu Green Living on Facebook or visit our blog at Most of the official information quoted above is available at the English version of the NAQS website,


  1. Wonderful and informative. Thanks so very much!

  2. Wow, I'm thrilled to have come across this article. Thanks so much Mike.