Hold the Bug Spray on My Peppers, PleasePushing her shopping cart through the Hyundai Department Store supermarket, Lee Ja-young, 37, skips the regular vegetable aisle and heads for the section that sells organically produced fruits and vegetables. Ms. Lee picks up a bag of green chilies bearing a green logo that is the government certification that it has been organically produced. "They definitely cost more but since I use them whole, with the skin intact, I like knowing that they are chemical-free," she explained. The 150-gram bag of green chilies she puts into her cart costs 2,500 won ($1.94), while the "ordinary" chilies just a few steps away cost a mere 420 won per 100 grams.
Ms. Lee is one of a growing number of people willing to pay more for naturally grown produce. "If I could, I'd be planting my own lettuce to make sure nothing harmful is sprayed on it, but since I live in the city, the next best thing I can do is buy organic products," said Kim Su-ja, 62, shopping for vegetables at Hanaro Mart in Yeonhui-dong, part of a supermarket chain operated by the Korea Agricultural Cooperative Marketing that carries an extensive range of organic goods.
Before a product is issued the green certification, it must meet certain standards set by the National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service (NAQS), an Agriculture and Forestry Ministry agency, which defines organic agricultural products as those that have been cultivated without using chemical fertilizer and agricultural chemicals. "The revised certification standard that goes into effect next month is just as stringent as standards adopted elsewhere, such as the United States," said a quality management division official at NAQS.
Although the "organic" label is not a health claim but a process claim, consumers believe that organically produced goods are healthier because of the reduced synthetic residue. Organic farming differs from conventional farming in that it uses no synthetic agricultural inputs, such as synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, fungicides, synthetic preservatives and additives or irradiation.
In organic management, biological control is the preferred method of pest management. For example, a farmer can plant crops that pests are particularly fond of, such as kale and cabbage, between crops. "That keeps the pests away from the crops I am cultivating without my having to resort to synthetic pesticides," said Chung Kyung-shik in his recent book on eco-friendly farming methods, "A Bite for the Birds, a Bite for the Insects and a Bite for the Humans."
Foregoing synthetic fertilizers, organic farmers rely on animal manure and other organic waste as their main fertilizers. Untreated or improperly treated manure or biosolids, commonly known as sludge, can lead to contamination of products and water sources; but when properly treated, they are effective and safe fertilizers.
Farming processes aside, the final product must taste good if it is to sell well, and it appears that organically grown products get the thumbs up in taste as well. A study involving the sensory differences between organically and conventionally grown Golden Delicious apples found organically grown apples to be firmer and better tasting than their conventionally grown counterparts. The amount of flavanoids, plant pigments that give color to the plant and function as antioxidants, in the organic apples was also higher, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Although still only a small industry, organic farming is increasingly important in the agricultural sectors of many countries. In Austria and Switzerland, for example, organic agriculture has come to represent nearly 10 percent of the food system. In Korea, eco-friendly agricultural products, which include organically grown products as well as those that contain minimal permissible synthetic fertilizers and agricultural chemicals, are still at a nascent stage, making up a mere 1 percent of all agricultural production. Of eco-friendly agricultural products, organically grown products account for 5 percent.
Although the quantity produced is miniscule, Korean consumers are eager for the green seal of approval. One local organic food company, Natural Whole Foods, estimates the organic produce market at 150 billion won. "Our sales target this year is 12 billion won, compared to 4.4 billion won last year," said Suh Young-joon, the company's marketing manager.
For those looking for organically cultivated products, there are a number of options, online and off-line. Hannong, an organic farming collective of 7,000 farmers, recently opened an Internet shopping mall at www.hannong.com. Another well-known organic farming movement is Hansalim, a co-op of producers and consumers. Upon paying a one-off 30,000 contribution fee and a 3,000 won membership fee, consumers can order online at www.hansalim.co.kr or shop at a number of Hansalim outlets in Seoul. Neither of these Web sites is available in English.
Natural Whole Foods operates shops in Banpo and Apgujeong, both in southern Seoul, in addition to running an Internet site at www.newfood.co.kr. "About 60 percent of the 200 or so items sold online are organically grown," said Lee Mi-kyung, a content manager at the company's Internet site. For online orders of 30,000 won or more, the company offers free delivery. An English-language online service is expected in the latter half of this year.
by Kim Hoo-ran