The 9th Organic and Natural Trade Fair in Seoul, South Korea. July 2nd – 4th 2010.

The 9th Organic and Natural Trade Fair in Seoul, South Korea. July 2nd – 4th 2010.

By Henry Virgin, Director of Green Boar Organic Tea,

When I was invited to the 9th Korean Organic and Natural Trade Fair in Seoul from July 2-4, I couldn’t turn down the offer. Especially since I had been planning to visit the tea farm from where I source an excellent selection of organic Korean green teas.

In Asia, organic production and consumption continues to rise. The market is growing at 15 to 20 % a year. Despite the fact that Asia has 60% of the global population, most organic production is for export. This is why there is a powerful contingent of EU, US and Japanese certifying agents working in Asia. Regular food retailers are introducing organic ranges to their shelves.100% organic shops are springing up in the richer Asian countries like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Walmart in China has a big organic fresh vegetable section. International and local food scares are raising the awareness of organic foods. The perceived health benefits of organic food is also attracting buyers. The organic trend is definitely on the up.

South Korea has a small population and is increasingly proud of its agricultural products. The government is striving to develop its organic foods so that they excel in quality and functional health benefits. It wants to produce the best organic food in the world, for both domestic and export markets.

The total land mass of Korea is only about 100,000 km². As a result of the swift economic development in the last 40 years, the agricultural sector has declined. This sector before the 1960s generated about half of Korea’s GDP and maintained its labour force. At the same time, Korea had the highest pesticide use in the world and it still has one of the highest cancer rates in the world.

There are now about 32,000 certified organic farmers, but for an indication of how far they have to go to provide for themselves, Korea still imports about 70% of its foods from overseas. Currently Korea doesn’t have the raw materials to be an exporting nation. It is still developing.

Therefore, it is still very early days for organic products but local production is increasing at 30% and organic sales rose 70% before the recession hit last year. The Government has initiated an organic labelling system and an advertising campaign. You will find organic products in the top end department stores, hypermarkets and supermarkets. The organic buzz is beginning.

Seoul is very cosmopolitan and at the moment it is the cosmopolitan mother aged 30 to 40 who is the target customer. She is a university educated shopper with the health of her children and family foremost in mind. She knows about the historic pesticide usage and the high cancer rates. She hears the government public service announcements and she wants organic.

It was into this social organic landscape that I attended the Fair. There were 30 foreign buyers from 12 different nations. Each was provided with an interpreter and a schedule of meetings with Korean companies hoping to export their product.

I met some fascinating individuals who had also been invited: Officers from the number 1 Chinese Organic Authority “The China Organic Food Certification Centre”, the Sales Director of a leading Dutch Firm ( much heartened by the World Cup Orange victory vs Germany) , the PR Manager of IFOAM, the Indonesian Director of  a firm which sells the coffee bean ‘Kopi Luwak’ which is passed through the gut of the civet cat and excreted for a final fermentation. There was a Director from one of the largest Indonesian trading firms, a Chinese buyer, an Australian buyer, Cambodian cadres and many whom I didn’t have the chance to meet.

We were all given a welcome reception with a buffet, a speech regarding Korean organics, an apology that the buffet wasn’t organic, but a pledge that it would be the next year.

There was a huge array of products, both raw and processed, powdered, extracted, all jostling together, in good looking recycled or recyclable retail packaging. The Korean flair for subdued yet exciting design was very evident. All the products were a joy to behold; silkworm powder, tomato pills, chrysanthemum tea, mulberry tea, traditional millet, corn, buckwheat, soybeans, giant pears, cabbages, chilli peppers, peaches.

There was mysterious glasswort (samphire), saururus chinensis, king oyster mushrooms, funghi galore, green kernelled rice, germinated red kernel rice, glutinous brown rice, duck rice, magnolia flowers, seaweed, blueberries, mugwort, yam, stevia, preserved sesame leaves, preserved mulberry leaves, kimchi, pistachio, almond, bacillus, lactobacillus,  acanthopanax and ginseng. I even found a booth with a large wok deep frying ginseng roots in batter. It was most delicious, with taste-hints of parsnip.

Drafts of red ginseng juice fuelled the afternoon as did various other untranslatable tinctures. Traditional Korean wines were on offer in the aisles; glutinous rice wine, turbid rice wine “it doesn’t make you belch and has a clean aftertaste”, millet shell wine, black bean wine, and grape wine ‘made with rice’, wild grass wine, red plum wine, pine pollen wine. The wines are mostly milky in colour, with a fizzy effervescence.

Despite how much I had enjoyed the fair, the highlight of my journey was when I managed to visit my source of organic tea from a farm in the deep south of Korea. I took an internal flight to the local airport, and had a fascinating time, walking through the fields and discussing with the farm manager and company director about organic tea production. Better still was tasting it at the organic source of production. Korean Organic Green Tea is excellent.

Organic Fair Images

Organic Tea Farm Images

Figures taken from Organic Trade Association’s data and from the IFOAM.

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