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[Contribution] Not just K-crops on Korean dinner tables

By Lee Yoon-seo

Published : June 11, 2023 - 11:16

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Stefan Schmitz, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust Stefan Schmitz, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust

By Stefan Schmitz

Executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust

Just as the colorful mosaic of banchan dishes enhances a dinner table, Korean – and global – food security is enhanced by crop diversity. Dishes such as kimchi, bibimbap and japchae all contain crops that originated in far-away countries and speak to how we are all interconnected in what we eat.

In an interconnected world facing complex challenges, few things are certain. But we must all eat – and I think we would all agree that what we eat should be sufficient, healthy, reliably available and affordable. It should also not contribute to destroying the planet.

As nations strive to achieve food and nutritional security under an increasingly challenging climate, we must recognize that none of that will be possible without crop diversity. Korea, with its rich agricultural heritage and commitment to sustainable practices, stands as a prime example of the benefits derived from embracing crop diversity.

Power of crop diversity

Crop diversity is a natural insurance policy. By cultivating a wide range of crops, and of varieties within each crop, farmers create a buffer against shocks. That buffer protects them against the loss of any one crop or variety.

For instance, growing a range of different soybeans or rice varieties, both landraces, or traditional farmers’ varieties, and the results of modern plant breeding, mitigates the risks associated with pests, diseases and climate change, while allowing farmers to respond to changes in the market. Embracing diversity not only secures food production, but also enriches local diets, ensuring adequate nutrition and promoting public health.

Interdependence for crop diversity

While each country possesses its own unique agroclimatic conditions and landraces, all countries are interdependent in crop diversity. The exchange of crop diversity, knowledge and expertise enhances the collective resilience of the global agricultural and food system.

Korea has contributed greatly to this over the years, but has also benefited from accessing crop varieties from all around the world. Tong-il rice is widely thought to be the key to Korean self-sufficiency in the 1970s, and has been chosen as one of Korea’s greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century. Developed and distributed by the Rural Development Administration, Tong-il variety of rice was the result of an international breeding program at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines that sourced its diversity from multiple countries. Such collaboration ensures that no single country is solely reliant on its own resources, reducing vulnerability and promoting sustainability.

Gochugaru chile powder is a staple ingredient in Korean cuisine. It possesses unique flavors and qualities, and is an important part of the country’s cultural heritage and culinary diversity. But how many Koreans know that this crop originated in Central America? Its continued cultivation depends on diversity from that region.

The role of international partnerships

International partnerships play an essential role in the conservation and use of crop diversity. Instruments such as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture facilitate the exchange of crop diversity among nations, ensuring access to diversity for future generations.

Korea actively participates in these collaborations, contributing its own unique crop varieties and benefiting from the knowledge and diversity shared by other countries. Through such partnerships, countries can collectively address global challenges, such as climate change and emerging pests, while fostering agricultural innovation.

Protecting local and traditional knowledge

Alongside crop diversity, the preservation of traditional knowledge related to crop cultivation is crucial. Local farming practices, passed down through generations, enshrine wisdom that can be harnessed for sustainable agricultural systems. In Korea, the cultivation of medicinal plants, such as ginseng and astragalus, demonstrates the importance of traditional knowledge in promoting human well-being and preserving biodiversity. By recognizing and respecting local knowledge, we can nurture a holistic approach to agriculture that respects both nature and culture.

Crop diversity lies at the heart of sustainable agriculture, safeguarding global food security in the face of evolving challenges. Recognizing the interdependence among countries and promoting the exchange of crop diversity and knowledge is essential for building resilience and ensuring a sustainable future. Korea's commitment to crop diversity, as exemplified by the cultivation of unique local crops and varieties and participation in international collaborations, serves as an inspiration to the global community.

Let us embrace this interdependence, foster partnerships and work collectively to protect and enhance crop diversity for the benefit of present and future generations. Together, we can cultivate a more resilient and food-secure world, starting right here in Korea.

Stefan Schmitz is an executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international nonprofit organization established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Bioversity International. The views in this column are his own. – Ed.