Managers at Hansalim, Korea’s biggest cooperative of consumers, recently realized the depth of the food scare when they took a look at the surging number of their cooperative’s members.
Established in 1986, Hansalim saw its membership swell by nearly 20 percent to 250,900 in January from a year ago, just by word of mouth. It spends almost nothing on public relations.
The sharp increase in membership is understandable, because it happened shortly after foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and avian influenza (AI) broke out in the country late last year, forcing officials to cull millions of livestock. Haphazard mass burials of those culled animals raised fears of environmental contamination.
“We believe that the sudden rise in our membership comes from growing demand for healthy foods,” said Hansalim spokesperson Park Hyun-sook.
Food safety was a national issue when Koreans flooded the Seoul streets almost daily for weeks in 2008 to protest a government decision to allow U.S. beef imports after several years of bans due to concerns over mad cow disease.
Concerns rose again about food safety after the deadly animal diseases swept through the country until recently. As a result, many consumers were drawn to local foods as opposed to those that were imported, according to market watchers.
Vegetables and other foods sold by Hansalim are grown or produced through collaborative efforts between growers and consumers. Their products are mainly organic foods that are grown and processed without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
In Korea, many local foods are being distributed via stores run by such consumer cooperatives as Hansalim and Dure. The system is considered an alternative to the global food system in which producers and consumers are separated via a chain of manufacturers, shippers and retailers.
The local “organic” food movement, however, is in its infancy compared to similar movements in the U.S., Japan, Canada and other advanced countries.
Hansalim has 110 stores across Korea, which carry about 1,500 different kinds of agro-fishery products. It posted 182.6 billion won ($162.1 million) in sales in 2010.
Hansalim’s sales volume is small compared to that of other leading discount store chains such as E-mart, which is owned by the country’s largest retailer Shinsegae Co. E-mart mainly handles global foods.
The Korean discount store chain recorded 7.3 trillion won in sales in the first nine months of last year via its 129 outlets at home and 25 stores in China.
“The local food movement in Korea is in its embryonic stage, due to its disorganization and consumers’ low awareness of the issue,” said Kim Jong-duk, a professor at Kyungnam University who has been an active member of the movement.
“The population in farm villages is getting older quickly, so producers can’t meet the growing demand for local foods. This is another reason that farm villages have already been lagging behind industrial agriculture.”
Experts blame industrial agriculture, the “modern” way of producing livestock, poultry, fish, vegetables and crops with machines and advanced technologies including genetics, as one of the primary causes of unsafe foods and livestock diseases like FMD and AI.
Kim says the increasing popularity of organic food will also help create jobs and boost the income of farm villages.
Devon County in England, for example, has been pushing the local food movement since 1998. Through the movement, the county with a population of just over 1.1 million has been able to create and renew 150 jobs and have $14.22 million circulate within.
According to published reports, the system also has helped establish 15 farmers’ markets and 18 community-supported outlets of farm products. The system is lauded as a socio-economic model of agriculture and food distribution in which growers and consumers share the risks and benefits.
Kim says the local food movement can also lessen the expected loss of farmers’ income from free trade pacts Korea has signed with the European Union and the U.S. Both pacts are now waiting to go into effect.
Many experts say that the free trade deals with foreign agricultural powerhouses will have a serious impact on the Korean farm industry. A government report shows that Korea’s grain self-sufficiency rate fell to 26.7 percent in 2009 from 27.8 percent the previous year.
Korea and the European Union signed a free trade agreement last year, agreeing to put it into effect on July 1. The Korea-U.S. FTA, signed in 2007, is awaiting ratification by their respective legislatures.
Hansalim, for its part, is pushing ahead with other projects to solidify links between growers and consumers so that the local food movement will gain further strength.
“We are going to diversify our programs to educate consumers on the benefits of the local food system,” Park said.
Hansalim is planning to set up a community in Asan, an area 100 kilometers southwest of Seoul, where growers and consumers will live together. It hopes the project will help spread the food movement in Korea.