Certified mendacity: digging up dirt on the ‘organic’ industryThe perception of organic food here is that it is expensive and limited only to a few posh retail shops advertising “well-being.” Expensive it is: organic food costs up to 30 percent more than the alternative.
But there is now a noticeable increase in the market for organic edibles, as giant company brands have jumped into the business and supermarket chains have begun displaying “health food” on their shelves, though at gourmet prices.
Good news for grocery shoppers, right?
It was indeed good for Jang Moon-sun, 54, a full-time mother living in Banpo-dong, southern Seoul. She said she was delighted to see more stores handling organic products, while in the past, she had to hunt rather than shop for organic food.
She might thank the government policy that has been pushing farmers to go organic. As a means to protect both the environment and domestic agricultural products from massive imports, the Korean government passed the “environmentally-friendly act” in 2001 that included support for farmers of organic produce. The new law also required that farms and their products be certified by designated agencies. Before, it was up to the farmers to declare whether their agricultural products had been produced organically. As a result, there have been a few incidents in which regular carrots smeared with dirt were sold as “natural” products for a higher price.
“We are also trying to concide with the well-being boom as consumers’ main concern these days is to eat safe, healthy food,” said Kim Jun-gyu, an environmental certification department official with the National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service.
So, again, this means we are safe to purchase the organic product now, right?
Well, not exactly, says one consumer’s rights group. The group says it saw products that had been labeled “organic,” but were not quite the 100-percent organic produce a consumer might expect.
“Organic products have become so popular among the public that it is easy to find such products being sold everywhere with labels that read ‘environmentally-friendly’,” Ko Myung-hee, a researcher at Consumers Korea, said using the official name of the government policy for promoting organic. “But what most consumers don’t know is that they could be buying a semi-organic or even non-organic product thinking they are actually buying a 100-percent organic product.”
Many local stores have now converted one corner into an “environment-friendly agricultural section,” stocked with certified products. But shoppers usually overlook the label that categorizes the product into one of four levels.
The first level is yuginong, or fully organic. To earn the label, the field used had to be free from all pesticides and chemical fertilizers for at least three years. The second level is jeonhwangi yuginong, which can be tranlated as “transition organic,” requiring one year of pesticides and chemical fertilizer-free products. The third level is mu-nongyak, or “no pesticides,” which excludes pesticides but not chemical fertilizers. The fourth level is jeo-nongyak, or “low on pesticides.”
But Kim Chung-hyeong, an employee at Chorok Maeul, a retail organic shop, said most organic shops do not want to disclose how much of each organic level they sell.
“The amount of first-level organic produce is very small,” he said. “More than half of the ‘organic’ products we see in the markets are fourth-level.”
“That’s how much the government certifies, so retail shops should be selling about the same amount,” he added.
According to statistics released by the National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service, in 2001, 10,670 tons, or 0.05 percent of agricultural products, were certified as “100-percent organic.” But 44,334 tons, or 0.23 percent, were certified as fourth level. That amounted to 87,279 tons of “environmentally-friendly” products during that year.
In 2003, however, the amount of environmentally-friendly products increased to 366,107 tons, accounting for 2.14 percent of all agricultural products in Korea. But the amount of first-level products was a mere 0.2 percent, or 34,191 tons, while the certifications for fourth level products consisted of 1.24 percent, or 211,558 tons.
Kim Ki-hun, a senior official at the Environmental department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry said there was still little organic farming in Korea, compared with Japan and European countries. In some European countries, organic farming took up 5 percent of their entire farming, he said.
“But our goal is to promote this business so that it accounts for 10 percent of domestic farm produce by 2010,” he said.
But while organic food may be popular, the certification system is not. Civic groups say the system does not meet international standards. Although the National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service says that Korea’s organic standards have been approved by the USDA, it admits that the organic products certified by its 16 agencies could not be exported.
Designated agencies must gain approval from the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, known as IFOAM, for their certifications to be accepted by most countries.
“Several of the agencies are now working to get approved from IFOAM. It’s going to happen in the next two years,” said Ahn Jong-seong of the National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service. “Besides, Korea doesn’t produce enough organic products for export.”
Where can one purchase certified organic produce?
According to the Agriculture Ministry, the number of natural food grocery stores has reached 931 nationwide as of end of 2004, and it is guessing there should be at least 20 percent increase by this year after bigger chain stores such as Lotte Mart and E-Mart declared they would enter the organic market also.
Here are few of the popular ones selling healthier food here and the price tags from their bestselling products. All products have been certified according to the four Korean organic levels.
Meaning “green village” in Korean, its first branch opened in 2001 in Daechi-dong, southern Seoul. Their specialty is ori ssal, rice cultivated from South Chungcheong province using manure that ducks leave in rice fields as a natural pesticide. One of its ori ssal products, “Chorok Maeul unpolished rice,” is first-level organic, and costs 21,000 won for 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds). The store carries over 820 natural products. Shopping is available online as well. To find the closest store, visit www.hanifood.co.kr
A new affiliate of Pulmuwon, a natural food
company, Orga has 12 stores in Seoul, and is available at some counters of E-mart. Orga handles over 3,000 products both domestic and imported. Rice available in all four organic levels ranges from 11,800 to 23,500 won. Their top sellers are processed food, however, such as the “orga strawberry jam” and the “orga milk.” Note: Processed food products do not come with government certification.
One of the earliest supermarket chains in Korea to handle “organic food.” The market is run by Nonghyup, a farmer’s collective, providing agricultural products to the market for a cheaper price. The branch in Yangjae-dong, Seoul, is particularly well-known for stacking its shelves with a diverse array of organic products. The main brand line, however, is “Achim Maru,” Nonghyup’s own. A 3.5-kilogram bag of level-one organic rice is 20,200 won, and 4 kilograms of level-two rice is 19,100 won. Level-four apples are 8,530 won a pack (6 in a pack). www.hanaro-club.co.kr
Hansalim helps buyers reach about 2,000 farmers who are certified to produce partly to completely organic food. The company says consumers can be sure that they are eating a safe product because they know by whom and where the product was grown. An 8-kilogram bag of level-one polished rice is 32,600 won. Level-two iceberg lettuce is 1,000 won per pack (200 grams). Level three and four apples are available, at about 21,000 won for 5 kilograms.
Products only available on the website: www.hansalim.or.kr
by Lee Min-a