[Letters]The case against cheap U.S. beef
Korea spent more than 15 months protesting against reinstating U.S. beef imports in the Free Trade Agreement. We citizens of the republic took the lead [opposing it] in weeks of peaceful, nonviolent candlelight demonstrations, but in spite of our efforts, U.S. beef imports were resumed. Protests and demonstrations have ceased, and no one seems to talk about this issue anymore. Have we given up? Big supermarkets are shamelessly selling cheap U.S. beef, and sales continue to increase. Where did the 100,000 protesters go? Are they also at the supermarkets buying cheap U.S. beef?
Beef plays an enormous role in Korean culture and society. Beef has always been expensive in Korea, and therefore, many Koreans feel a special attachment to beef. Not many people can afford to provide their children healthy dishes with beef, and thus it has become a luxury good and a symbol of wealth and status. Cheap U.S. beef has undoubtedly attracted many Koreans. This increased attraction has caused and will cause many problems that are difficult to solve. The only focus of our demonstrations against U.S. beef imports was on mad cow disease issues, but in reality, there are many characteristics of the U.S. cattle industry that are even more problematic and pertinent to issues we face today.
Why and how exactly is U.S. beef cheaper than Korean beef? Unlike Korean cows, which are fed grass and other vegetables that they can easily digest, American cattle are given the cheapest feed available, such as meat from diseased animals and unhealthy amounts of grain (mostly cheaply grown corn and soybeans). Cows cannot digest such grains very well but American cattle farmers use them to fatten up their cows quickly and efficiently. Moreover, American cattle farmers administer excessive amounts of antibiotics to prevent the cows getting sick before they are sold.
Raising cows in this manner leads to various problems. Beef from cows fed with cheap grains is lower in nutritional content and higher in fat compared to cows raised on grass. These grains also contain high levels of pesticides, which may increase the risk of developing cancer or have long-term effects on the human reproductive, nervous and immune systems. Moreover, excessive use of antibiotics could pose dangers to humans consuming beef from cows carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains.
There is another issue that we must discuss: the relationship between the current obesity epidemic and meat consumption. Many factors are held responsible for this obesity epidemic, one of which is increased food consumption, including meat. Among all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries, Korea has the lowest prevalence of obesity at 3.5 percent, but this rate has been rapidly increasing.
Cheap, overabundant meats generated from cheap overabundant grain exacerbate the obesity epidemic. When people are suffering from undernutrition, lower meat and dairy prices are good news, but today when overnutrition has become a serious problem in many developed and developing countries, they are not. What might seem to be progress with greater access to lower priced beef and more foods could actually be a regression. Unless we open our eyes and address the obesity epidemic that Americans have inflicted on themselves, we may fall into the same trap with widespread adverse effects on public health, such as increased coronary heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, etc.
What can we do now? We all know that it will be difficult to break cultural and social notions on beef in our country - beef and Korean food culture are inseparable. I do not and cannot ask you to stop eating beef altogether. But I ask that you choose Korean beef over cheap U.S. beef. With U.S. beef and grains imports, we are driving local farmers and butchers out of business. Buying Korean beef will not only help our local farmers but also protect our health.
If we continue to buy cheap U.S. beef, then our own cattle farmers might need to find ways to make cheaper beef in order to survive. Accordingly, I ask that the Korean government provides support to Korean cow farmers to encourage their efforts in raising healthy cows. Lastly, I ask journalists and writers to write more articles and books about the issues of food ethics and politics.
Sun Yang, Stevenson Ranch, California