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In South Korea, centuries of farming point to the future for sustainable agriculture

Shin Seong Gi of Geumsan Gandhi School preparing a field with students to cuultivate cabbage and radish during organic farming class. Photo by Latoya Abulu.

  • Agriculture in South Korea is a blend of centuries-old traditions and contemporary techniques adapted to a variety of environmental conditions, making it a model to adopt in the effort to future-proof food production against climate change.
  • With its emphasis on making the most of local conditions, prioritizing native crops, maximizing the use of organic inputs while minimizing waste, South Korea offers templates for nature-based solutions.
  • State and local support of farmer’s livelihoods, revitalizing rural areas and incentivizing youth to enter farming are also ongoing efforts to help guarantee the generational sustainability of agriculture.

South Korea has been held up as a model by other nations around the world for its current handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the country also leads the way on finding solutions to the longer-term problems of agriculture and climate change through its ancient farming traditions.

In its August 2019 report “Climate Change and Land,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted the importance and urgency of changing our use of the land from practices that have led to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, soil erosion and water scarcity, into mitigation and adaptation measures.

“Managing land resources sustainably can help address climate change,” Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, said in a press release on the report.

The report’s recommended adaptation and mitigation responses seem to chime with South Korea’s array of traditional agricultural techniques developed to sustainably farm amid various unfavorable conditions, ranging from arid and humid, to infertile and typhoon-prone. It was in this context that the country developed the world’s first heated greenhouse, more than 200 years before they first appeared in Europe.

These traditions were compiled in a lengthy royal book, Nongsa jikseol, more than 500 years ago, but there are also contemporary agricultural initiatives in the country that point to a way out of the current environmental crisis, born of the record-breaking heat waves, crop-destroying floods, and escalating food prices that South Korea has experienced in recent years.

Ginseng covered by protective black cloth structures while red pepper is planted to its right, and organic rice fields below. Photo by Latoya Abulu.

Sustainable land, forestry and biodiversity management

The town of Geumsan in South Chungcheong Province, in the country’s west, is the heartland of South Korea’s most famous crop — the medicinal root ginseng, known locally as insam — and home to a 500-year-old farming tradition recognized by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS).

“The site in the Republic of Korea met all criteria,” Yuji Niino, land management officer of the FAO’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific, said in an interview. “Those criteria include all concerned issues also covered in the IPCC report: sustainable land and natural resources management from biophysical, socioeconomic and cultural interventions.”

Like many traditional Korean landscape management techniques, it uses ecotones — transition areas between different types of landscapes — conservation agriculture, and Confucian principles. It accounts for the natural environment’s topography during farming in order for local communities, rice fields, and farmland to coexist harmoniously near forests with protected biodiversity such as mandarin ducks and black kites.

The entire agricultural process is practiced alongside a holistic recycling method that uses waste generated from other farming sectors, such as using rice straw after the grain harvest as ground cover and crop protection to prevent the growth of weeds and retain soil moisture during drought.

Ginseng crops are planted at eruditely precise locations depending on sun and wind exposure, as well as rainfall, temperature and cardinal direction. Centuries of cultivation have taught farmers here that ginseng grows best in mountain valleys on a 25-30° slope, inclined from east to south and known as the shineul direction, to maximize the amount of water drainage, sunlight and ventilation. This precision is enhanced by specially angled shade structures of wood and cloth, called gagae, that ensure the farming methods are adapted to the environmental conditions.

In this way, ginseng farming has adapted to South Chungcheong Province’s mountainous topography, using the biodiverse hill forests to its advantage in a symbiotic relationship: the forests serve as green walls and windbreaks, controlling sun and wind exposure for the crop to grow to optimum yields.

Rice is the most valuable crop in South Korea and is water intensive. Photo by Latoya Abulu.

Enhancing soil fertility and agricultural productivity

This integrated use of land is also part of a developed Korean farming ethic combining intercropping, multi-cropping, crop rotation, and resting periods, all rolled into one dynamic system. It harnesses traditional knowledge of specific nitrogen-fixing plants, soil bacteria, micro-organisms, and the relations between all of them to optimize yields by increasing soil fertility, boost crop health and biomass for livestock grazing, and reduce weed and pest infestations.

A plot designated for vegetables in this system will intercrop two or more plants such as cabbage, pepper and radish, followed by a plot intercropping barley, beans, corn or rye, and finally a plot for rice.

“All in the same area, these intercropped sections then rotate, vegetables to grains then to rice,” Park Young-soo, a local farmer, said in an interview. “They play shifting roles of fixing nitrogen, maintaining the soil’s organic carbon matter, balancing microbes, feeding decomposers, retaining water, and recovering soil fertility.”

Farmers here preventing land degradation with a nature-based method, using bryophytes (hair moss and liverworts), which promote soil decomposition and are planted around the roots of certain crops to prevent soil sloping and boost soil health and water retention.

Traditional Korean knowledge of soil nutrients and food fermentation techniques is also used by some farmers to create natural fertilizer and pesticide. This is done by culturing and proliferating indigenous micro-organisms — fungi, bacteria and yeast — to enhance the soil’s fertility without the need for livestock waste.

Farming field with rice planted on the left, rows of crops on the right and farming slots surround-ing them using green manure crops to rejuvenate the soil. Photo by Latoya Abulu.

Water management to respond to desertification

Water retention and management is a key focus of farming on the island of Cheongsando, off the country’s southwestern tip. Through a 500-year-old agricultural technique, farmers here have adapted to the region’s water scarcity and sandy soil to build terraces for rice, a crop that is highly water dependent.

Called gudeuljang terraces, they rely on underground aqueducts to irrigate rice fields on top. Farmers stack rocks in towers, then lay a flat stone, called gudeul, on top, followed by a layer of red mud and finally arable soil for the rice. The rice grows in the soil, while the red mud retains and controls the amount of water, with any excess dripping between the stacked stones and into the rice terrace below.

Because of the thin layer of soil used and the high rate of water drainage through the stacks of stones, the soil tends to dry out easily and there is a high loss of nutrients. So farmers constantly apply a traditional compost fertilizer to supplement the topsoil, made of a mixture of grass, leftover animal feed, human manure, and the antiseptic leaves from the silk tree to control pests.

The gudeuljang terraces represent a land reclamation and food security strategy using endemic rice varieties and maximizing the use of land without adverse effects on the surrounding environment. The aqueducts simultaneously serve as a home to diverse aquatic flora and fauna, and the technique can be replicated in regions affected by desertification.

“We also confirmed that the Traditional Gudeuljang terraces had higher plant species diversity than conventional terraced rice paddies,” Park Hong-chul, a conservation scholar, writes in a 2017 study, “and there was a difference in life form characteristics between the two types.”

Other parts of South Korea experience regular floods during the monsoon, such as Hadong county in South Gyeongsang Province. Here, farmers have developed an agroforestry system over a period of 1,200 years through planting and cultivating diverse tea trees at the foot of once mostly barren mountains. Now long adapted to the ecosystem, the trees themselves serve as barriers to the flooding of villages, and bring in revenue for this region that accounts for 20% of South Korea’s domestic tea production.

Plates of Korean side dishes made with local plants. Image courtesy Latoya Abulu.

Dietary changes and food waste

One of the most important aspects of climate mitigation is our diet. Korean food has gained in popularity worldwide as part of the Hallyu Korean cultural wave, and in the process shown how its traditional flexitarian fundamentals constitute a proper ecological plate.

“Balanced diets featuring plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low GHG systems, present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change,” Debra Roberts, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, said in the press release for last year’s report.

The Korean meal is a mix of a local and seasonal plant-rich side dishes, fermented vegetables, soups, spicy sauces, endemic rice varieties, where meat is more of a condiment than the main course. Compared to most other diets, its production is low on deforestation, water use and carbon emissions, thanks to reduced meat consumption, and better for regenerating soils and augmenting biodiversity through the farming of diversified crops.

The IPCC report notes that 25-30% of food is wasted, due to problems in packaging and human behavior. According to the report, from 2010 to 2016, global food loss and waste accounted for 8-10% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and cost about $1 trillion per year. Better dietary choices and reduced food loss and waste can reduce demand for land conversion.

The importance of not wasting food is an intrinsic part of Korean Buddhism, which emphasizes respect for nature and for all living things.

“Thus, nothing should be wasted,” the abbot of Boseoksa Temple in Geumsan county said in an interview. He cited the Korean Won Buddhist ritual of baru gongyang as symbolic of a deep appreciation for food that is offered, where not a single grain of rice goes to waste.

Rice straw is repurposed by being laid on the ground around the ginseng stems to protect the seedlings and roots during winter. Photo by Latoya Abulu.

Resilient livelihoods for farmers, stakeholders

As the climate crisis intensifies, it is farmers who are on the front lines, both vulnerable to climate change as it directly targets their livelihood, and also potential change-makers who can push through adaptation and mitigation responses through consumer cooperatives and policy.

The Act on the Promotion of Environment-Friendly Agriculture and Fisheries and the Management of and Support for Organic Foods is a South Korean policy that fosters farmers and fishermen who engage in sustainable practices.

“The state and local governments formulate plans and policies on environment-friendly agriculture and fisheries and organic food, and facilitate voluntary participation by farmers and fishermen,” Pierre Ferrand, the agricultural officer at the FAO’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific, said in an interview.

Goesan county in North Chungcheong province is a template for local government support of organic farming, and is where the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) has its regional office for Asia.

“The most distinctive point about Goesan county is its willingness and support of forming private-public partnerships with organic farming and consumer cooperatives active in the county,” Ferrand said. “With the largest concentration of organic farmers in Korea, Goesan county mainstreamed organic agriculture in all its policies.”

South Korean consumer cooperatives such as iCOOP Korea and Hansalim (which means “protecting all living things”) are some of the largest community-led organic farming movements in the world. During Seoul’s climate strike march on Sept. 22, 2019, Hansalim members brandished flags calling for a paradigm shift and highlighted the importance of farmers shouldering the responsibility of the health of consumers who in turn shoulder the livelihoods of farmers.

Co-op members, in seeking solutions to South Korea’s modern environmental, nutritional and rural livelihood issues, carry out direct transactions of more than 1,900 purely local organic products in more than 200 stores across the country, including online, grown by 2,220 farmer families.

Among the cooperative’s varied agricultural initiatives is the “Save Korean Native Seeds” project to enlarge the variety of its indigenous seeds through a seed farm and seed bank. This is a measure to increase the country’s food sovereignty and promote risk resilience and genetic diversity.

“[For farmers] it is best to sow seeds from their own cultivated ginseng and rarely sow with seeds from other regions or farmers,” Lee Hong-gi, a ginseng farmer, said in an interview.

Farmers’ fairs have also been emphasized through festivals such as the Geumsan Ginseng Festival. One of the nation’s largest farmers’ markets, it features 189 booths for farmers and their families who gather around festivities, entertainment and the selling of various ginseng goods, from roots to medicine to wine and rice cakes.

Farmers’ collectives have a colorful history in South Korea. They were known as pumasi and dure, and served to integrate rural communities, optimize productivity, management and reciprocity. Today, such farming communes can be seen in other agriculture-based societies across the world, as with the minga in some indigenous communities in South America.

Indigenous Kichwa people of Ecuador helping each other plow a mountainous field during a so-called minga. Photo by Latoya Abulu.

Incentivizing farming

Today, contemporary South Korean farming techniques focus on “smart” farming and the latest technology, such as using the Smart Farm Dispersion Method, as a key future growth engine to create jobs and optimize cultivating environments for crops to adapt to climate change and improve agricultural productivity.

With plans to invest $332 million in the sector over the next several years and ranked the world’s most innovative economy in 2019, South Korea has seen innovations such as the underground subway farm known as Farm 8. Created by a startup at Seoul’s Sangdo Station, it is a solution that maximizes the use of urban idle space, thus reducing the need for land conversion for rising food demand.

Revitalizing rural areas and incentivizing youths to enter farming is also part of efforts to encourage and pass down sustainable and traditional farming practices.

“To guarantee the generational sustainability of agriculture, it is vital to promote mechanisms that facilitate the intergenerational transfer of tangible and intangible farming assets,” the FAO said in its global action plan report for the current U.N. Decade of Family Farming. Family farmers are highlighted as custodians of the world’s food biodiversity.

The South Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has set up a Back-to-Earth Promotion Project, Youth Farmer Fostering Policy, and the Farmland Banking Project, aiming to promote and fund startups and businesses in the agricultural sector and in farming villages.

The Back-to-Earth project, in particular, is part of a growing movement in South Korea where older generations and youths who feel increasingly disenfranchised with urban life seek to live closer to nature in rural communities, best depicted in the popular movie Little Forest. It targets the problem of South Korea’s aging and depopulating countryside by providing property, housing, and farming education support to invigorate villages and teach farming techniques.

Small-scale farming is the source of livelihood for many people in Zimunya communal land. Image by Andrew Mambondiyani for Mongabay.
Small-scale farming is the source of livelihood for many people in Zimunya communal land. Image by Andrew Mambondiyani for Mongabay.

Grassroots initiatives

Grassroots initiatives that are part of a similar movement can be seen in the Milmeori Farm School in Yeoju county and the Geumsan Gandhi School in Geumsan county. These are boarding school programs that bring youths from cities to experience the countryside, learn Korean organic farming, and cook plant-rich dishes from their harvests.

At Geumsan Gandhi School, teachers help urban students develop and network to begin their own rural enterprises, organizations or trades through the creation of guilds. There has been an increasing interest in agriculture among youths, said principal Tae Young-chul.

“Throughout the years, among the students who have graduated, more have gone into the farming sector,” he said in an interview. “Approximately 10-15% now go into agriculture jobs.”

This is strengthened by the school’s farming class, where students learn about sustainable Korean organic farming practices and are encouraged to embark on it as a valued pathway.

“Here, we prefer that they learn to do the farming work with their hands rather than always using machines,” Shin Seong-gi, who teaches the farming class, said in an interview. “We want the students to understand the organic processes behind the work that is being done.”

These Korean farming initiatives, ancient and contemporary, though scattered, can serve as an inspiration and an initial approach to implementing the adaptation and mitigation responses called for by the IPCC report.

“They are all interconnected and highlight the importance to support sustainable and organic farming across the country,” said the FAO’s Ferrand, “to not only supply urban areas with healthy and environment-friendly (climate-friendly) products, but also to ensure decent livelihoods in rural areas.”

Banner image: Shin Seong Gi of Geumsan Gandhi School preparing a field with students to cuultivate cabbage and radish during organic farming class. Photo by Latoya Abulu.

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