Urban Foodshed: Eating, Drinking, and Breathing in Seoul

Hyewon Lee(Daejin University)

There are nearly 7,000 professional farmers in Seoul, and the city produces 630 tons of grain, 175 tons of potatoes, 1,160 tons of cucumbers, 411 tons of tomatoes, and 311 tons of pears every year. Because of Seoul’s guerilla farmers, largely composed of senior citizens, it is common to see sesame leaves and zucchini plants growing along the well-maintained landscapes of city apartment blocks. In addition, due to the growing interest in urban farming by Seoul’s younger residents, as well as local government support, the total area of urban farms have increased 5.6 times just in the last five years. However, the total foodstuffs produced by these professional, guerilla, and recreational farmers can only support 0.001 percent of the over 10 million population of Seoul’s megacity.

Many inhabitants of the city take it for granted that Seoul is a food-consuming rather than food-producing city, and that 3.67 million tons of food is brought into Seoul, circulated, and consumed every year, with 1/3 of this amount thrown away. Not only that, many may wonder why we even need to talk about food and farming in Seoul today. However, food disasters occurring all over the world for the last 10 years indicate that our vague optimism about the food crisis must be reconsidered. The bee colony collapse sweeping across U.S., Europe and Asia since 2006 set off alarm bells for the future of food production worldwide. The serial wheat crop failure in the world's major wheat producing countries—Ukraine and Russia from 2007-09, followed by China in 2010-11—due to extreme heat wave and drought conditions led to rising bread prices in the top grain importing countries of the Middle East and North Africa—heightening existing tensions that led to the Arab Spring from 2010-12. At the same time, the effects of the same heat wave and drought in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ region, the main breadbasket of the Middle East, uprooted much of its rural population, further exacerbating social instability in the region. And most recently, the global avian flu outbreak in 2016, which resulted in the culling of 27 million birds in South Korea alone has led to a sharp decline in poultry production as well as hike in egg prices.

The food crisis is further compounded by global water insecurity, as not only climate change but also corporate greed endangers access to water, which is a critical resource for food production. The so-called ‘water barons,’ top multinational investment banks and individual billionaires, are buying up land that holds major aquifers across the globe as well as buying operating rights to tap water in South America, Asia, and parts of Europe, taking advantage of economic crises or corrupt regimes, and low public awareness. Furthermore, corporations that manufacture chemical fertilizers and pesticides, that is, companies that have been the backbone of the green revolution that has exhausted the regeneration capacity of water and soil, are now advancing into the seed industry. And in 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicted an impending food shortage by the year 2030 that will be difficult for humanity to withstand, and identified insects as a future food resource.

The impacts of climate change that can no longer be denied and the political climate of the international community that is becoming increasingly difficult to predict day by day also make it hard to believe that what we now take for granted will continue. Springing from this sense of crisis, the 2017 Urban Architecture Biennale Live Project Urban Foodshed: Eating, Drinking and Breathing in Seoul looks at the future of the city through issues related to food. The project began by imagining a failure, for whatever reason (environmental or political), in any of the processes of food flows in Seoul, and examines not only the city’s food problems but also those that surround water, land, air, and energy, the key resources that underpin our food system.

The primary goal of this project is visitors’ direct experience of the process of food production, distribution, consumption, and recycling in Seoul. Towards this purpose the Urban Foodshed will be presented as a compressed system, consisting of a production system that is composed of a garden, an apiary, hydroponics, rainwater reservoirs, a seed library, etc.; a market, the most intimate space of distribution in the lives of urban residents; a restaurant and a café where food and drinks are consumed, and food waste is discharged, that either gets discarded or returned to the garden as compost. This system operates on the basis of farmers in Seoul as well as a domestic farming network. Borrowing the knowledge and experience of farmers practicing various farming methods in accordance with different topographical conditions, we grow vegetables, herbs and fruit trees in the Donuimun Museum Village, and use this produce in our restaurant and café.

By eating or drinking at the restaurant or café, visitors to the Urban Foodshed will not only be able to embody the vision of the Urban Foodshed, but also encounter various issues and problems related to eating, drinking and breathing that extends beyond the boundaries and scope of the restaurant and café, to three exhibits focused on the privatization of water, Seoul’s worsening air pollution, and the future of food in the city. Through these activities, visitors are invited to empathize with the urgency of the problems inherent in the closely intertwined global food system and join in finding coping mechanisms that traverse urban and national boundaries.

In addition, the project seeks to build a platform for information sharing that would bring together in one place the knowledge, alternatives and practical models needed to address the food, water, land, air, and energy crises. To this end, we have joined up with individuals, organizations and institutions in many parts of the world that are implementing alternatives across national boundaries. Representative examples include the Green Wall project by the Korean NGO Future Forest, which has planted nearly 10 million trees in the Inner Mongolia Kubuqi desert over the last 16 years; OceanCleanUp, a large-scale project initiated by Boyan Slat, a Dutch youth, to clean up sea waste; and Rwanda’s Environmental Management Authority, which has played a decisive role in the global spread of the campaign to reduce disposable plastics by prohibiting the use of plastic bags by law and enforcing this law for ten years.

During the course of the project, India, the Middle East, Africa and the East Mediterranean region became important reference points. This is because these regions are already experiencing chronic water scarcity and the severe impact of climate change and extreme weather that Seoul may experience in the not too distant future. Alternative approaches to water, land, air, and energy that people in these regions have already initiated are important components of this project. Among these are a movement to restore the traditional water storage system, Eri, in Tamil Nadu, India; pest control research using natural insects at a research institute in the Egyptian desert; organic farming methods to cope with climate change pioneered by Nicolas Netien at the Atsas Farm in the Solea Valley of Cyprus, which produces olive oil that set the record for the highest total phenolic compounds; and a solar oven developed in order to reduce the amount of wood and fossil fuels used for cooking by inventor and civilian activist Savvas Hadjixenophontos.

In addition to the cross-border activities of these individuals and organizations, we have also invited numerous field experts who are active in their own locales: organic farmers who preserve seeds by increasing organic matter in soil; migratory beekeepers who chase after blooming flowers with beehives in tow in the face of climate conditions that are increasingly disadvantageous to the bees survival; botanists who have dedicated their lives to the study of wild plants as the key to securing future food resources and soil regeneration; hydrologists, who cannot sleep on days of heavy rainfall because of potential flooding; activists fighting to defend the right to drink clean water; and young mothers who in order to provide clean water and food for their children, find and share a tremendous amount of information about both resources. We hope that the information, knowledge, alternatives and practical models collected by all of these people will form the basis for solving the problems that surround food, the resulting product of the proper interaction of four resources: water, land, air, and energy.

Lastly, I would like to add a few words about my own experience as the curator of this project who went from working on water-related projects for the last several years to expanding this interest into the current Urban Foodshed project. To be honest, this process has raised in me doubts as to whether mankind has ever shared food, water, land, and energy fairly and democratically at any point in history. This is a time that makes me doubt more than ever before, whether an individual who was born, raised, and educated in the capitalist system, and has become accustomed to defining himself/ herself through consumption would be able to suppress his/her desires in order to “save the planet.” However, it was not entirely meaningless to meet various field experts from home and abroad, and to experience growing vegetables in the city center of Seoul, even if at a negligible scale, and to refrain from unnecessary consumption.

This personal journey towards the Urban Foodshed helped make it clear to me that the city and the countryside are bound together in a single destiny and that they are companions heading towards an uncertain future. Not only that, it has helped identify what the growing ranks of amateur farmers, who are leading the sporadic but certain flow of urban farming, spreading like fashion in many cities across the world, can do for the future of humankind. In other words, urban farming for the future is more than just restoring urban ecosystems, strengthening community awareness, and contributing a part of the production of food consumed by the city. It has to be an agriculture that takes into account the expected impacts of climate change and environmental hazards, an agriculture that produces and preserves healthy seeds, and an agriculture that more actively practices biodiversity. This challenging agriculture is a better choice for urban farmers rather than livelihood farmers, and it will be easier to create the basis for this environment in the city. I am not talking about a scientific experiment that is possible at an agricultural research institute. Farming in a slightly drier or colder climate or more polluted air, is possible through only slight changes to the current conditions of the city.

This kind of practice will still require the help of architects and urban planners. As the growth that seemed to be expanding infinitely eventually slowed down, Seoul has begun exhibiting signs of slumification. Rather than reviving the buildings whose future uses are being abandoned, it would be more effective to demolish them in order to expand both farmland and permeable land to prepare for the food and water problems that we may encounter in the future. The future architect may have to be the person who demolishes rather than builds, or someone who systematically restores nature in order to create a city in which it is less difficult to eat, drink, and brea the.

Translated by Alice S. Kim