Beef – the Wrong Bus

Beef – the Wrong Bus

Bus stop ads

In the town of Dunnae, in South Korea’s eastern province of Gangwon-do, pictures of cows are everywhere. They’ve been staring at me from billboards along the highway, featured on the cover of promotional brochures, and even haunting this bus stop near the small organic farm, where I have been visiting.

This poster reads “Nation’s Best Beef Region-Hoingseong.” Other signs say “Nation’s Best Quality. Tastes Better.”

There has been an aggressive marketing and branding campaign for Korean beef since the lifting of the ban on U.S. beef imports last year. The import ban had been in place since December of 2003, when the first case of Mad Cow disease was discovered in the U.S. At the time, South Korea was the third largest importer of U.S. beef. Imports resumed last summer despite candlelight vigils and massive protests that swept the nation’s capital and shook up the South Korean government.

Part of the uproar last year was about food safety and the potential of meat from sick animals being dumped on the Korean market. This wasn’t too long after footage from the HSUS investigation aired with downer cows being sent to slaughter, leading to the recall of over 140 million pounds of meat. Some Koreans felt President Lee Myung Bak was giving in to the U.S. as a means of trying to push forward the proposed Korea-U.S. free trade agreement at the expense of the Korean public.

The battle over beef here was both personal and political. I wonder what it was like to be in Seoul when students, parents, religious leaders and concerned citizens took to the streets and organized the largest demonstration against the Korean government since the end of the military dictatorship in the late 1980s. Check out the scale and intensity of these protests in this photo slideshow.

One year later, though, the streets of Seoul are quiet again. According to Chosun Ilbo, U.S. beef started making its comeback on the shelves of Korean markets earlier this year despite its tainted reputation. One reason for this is the cheap price, as American beef is sold for about a third of the cost. But the Korean beef market is still strong with this new marketing campaign focusing on taste, quality, tradition and nationalism.

The issue can’t, however, be reduced to U.S. vs. Korean Beef. It is part of a larger discussion about food security. While Korean beef may be a national product, the Korean beef industry is still reliant on the U.S. for animal feed, and South Korean firms are targeting land in Africa to grow grain for its farm animals.

As South Korea’s economy boomed over the past several decades, so has its meat consumption, which increased from 4.1 kg per person in 1960 to over 48 kg today. Currently, almost half the grain South Korea consumes is fed to livestock.

Looking at that poster for Korean Beef at the bus stop in Dunnae, I thought to myself, “That’s the Wrong Bus!” borrowing the phrase from Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai. She discusses what she calls the “wrong bus syndrome” in her latest book The Challenge for Africa:

“Like travelers who have boarded the wrong bus, many people and communities are heading in the wrong direction or traveling on the wrong path, while allowing others (often their leaders) to lead them further from their desired destination.”

I thought about this in the context of the beef battles in Korea. Rather than investing in a national beef campaign, what if all the energy that rocked Seoul last year was harnessed to fuel a larger movement around food security and sustainability? If the debates (and diets) stay focused on beef ‘Korean or American’they will indeed be on the wrong bus.