Farmer Kim Young-min tends to a calf at his farm outside Seoul. Falling beef… (Matt Douma, For The Times )
Reporting from Paju, South Korea — Angry about a lack of government aid amid plummeting beef prices, cattle breeder Moon Dong-yeon reportedly took a drastic measure that animal rights activists insist is tantamount to murder: He let 40 cows, half his herd, die of starvation.
South Korean beef farmers are enduring tough times this winter as a glut of homebred cows has caused beef prices here to plunge while prices for feed, grain and even sawdust have soared.
Agriculture officials are investigating Moon in the cattle deaths, which activists say violate South Korea's animal protection law. Moon says he didn't have the money to feed the animals.
"He claims he cannot afford to feed them due to financial difficulties, but his refusal to do so is an act of protest against the government and should be stopped," the activist group Coexistence of Animals Rights on Earth said in a statement. "This is murder."
Farmers have struggled to call attention to their plight. One plucky urban cattle drive was cut off at the pass when authorities blocked breeders from parading their animals past South Korea's presidential palace, known as the Blue House. Undeterred, 120 farmers regrouped recently near the National Assembly, this time toting life-size plastic cows.
Third-generation beef farmer Kim Young-min supports the protests.
"We're angry," Kim, 28, said as he walked to his farm a half-hour drive outside Seoul. "We want to show officials just how hard it is to do what we do. If they think they can take these cows and make money, go ahead."
Breeders contend that raising cattle has become a losing proposition, with losses of as much as $500 a year per head of cattle. Officials say an oversupply of beef cattle has led to the price drop. In 2008, after a controversial halt to U.S. beef imports, some livestock farms increased the size of their herds, seeking to capitalize on an anticipated demand for Korean-bred beef.
After a subsequent scourge of foot-and-mouth disease, dairy cow and pig farmers hit by the epidemic shifted to beef breeding, industry experts say. Now, there are 3.3 million head of beef cattle in South Korea, more than the 2.6 million the market can sustain, officials say. A large percentage of breeding operations are small, with fewer than 50 cows, so market declines hit hard.
Agriculture officials want to cut the number of breeding cows by 250,000 out of a total of 1.25 million. They will also offer incentives of $300 to $500 to farmers who slaughter their cattle. Farmers say the payouts aren't enough to recoup years of losses.
In an interview on South Korean radio, breeder Moon suggested that the cattle deaths were natural rather than a willful act on his part. He said he could not afford to buy enough feed to sustain the animals.
"I refused to accept the fodder offered by the government because I didn't think it would be a solution to keep my cows alive. It would simply be a temporary measure," he said. "So my actions can be seen as a protest to the government for not doing anything about the rising feed costs and plunging cattle prices."
Hwang In-shik, director of the Paju office of the Korean Beef Assn., said the government should devise ways to help farmers, including encouraging South Koreans to eat more homebred beef. Only 40% of beef sold here is raised here.
Breeders say their economic woes will worsen under the new U.S.-South Korea free-trade deal, which calls for removing the 40% tariff on American beef.
"For many farmers, the FTA [free-trade agreement] could be a death blow," said farmer Kim, whose family owns 300 head of cattle. He said the money he receives per pound of beef has dropped by half in the last year.
Meanwhile, cattle breeders have staged rallies, throwing rice and grain into the street to demand more government subsidies.
The protests have evoked little public sympathy.
"It is high time farmers stop complaining and do something other than protest," reads one newspaper editorial. "There may be a small number of whiners, as in other industries, but they act as if they represent the entire sector."
The government has also criticized farmers. Seo Gyu-yong, minister of food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, said breeders risked public health by carting cattle to the city and called the tactic an "unacceptable action, no matter what." Those who use their animals to pressure officials face stiff penalties, he said. "We will not accept farmers who let their cattle starve to death or waste rice on the streets," he said.
On a recent Saturday, Kim dumped bags of feed into troughs, a sound that caused a dozen or more grazing animals to come sauntering toward the barn as a herd dog and her litter of pups looked on.
The cost of all his supplies is on the rise, he said. Even sawdust, used to bed his cattle, has doubled to $1,000 for 10 tons. He doesn't know where it will end.
Kim said his family has already sacrificed much to stay in business. When Kim was just a year old, his father sold the gold traditionally given to infants so he could buy cows.
His father briefly considered going out of business last year during the foot-and-mouth crisis, he said. "But we decided that cows are all we know."
Jung-yoon Choi of The Times' Seoul bureau contributed to this report.