Oregon Blueberries Bursting into South Korea

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by Kyu Seok Shim
Blue berries have seen a dramatic increase in popularity in South Korea, largely due to perceived health benefits. Image: Flickr user Dan Klimke.

Three years since a major breakthrough in Oregon’s effort to enter the South Korean berry market, blueberry exports from the Beaver State have significantly expanded, with estimates that the amount will exceed nearly three million pounds this year. Oregon and South Korea underwent almost ten years of grueling negotiations over the sanitary conditions of the state’s blueberry exports until 2012, when Korean officials finally concluded that Oregon blueberries met domestic regulatory health standards. Since then, Oregon has been the only state in the US allowed to export blueberries to Korea. Over 500,000 pounds were shipped in 2012, a figure that has been increasing almost twofold every year since. Expectations among exporters were raised even further with the ratification of the KORUS FTA in 2012, which has introduced a tariff reduction schedule in which the initial tariff of 45% on the exports decreases each year by 4.5% until it reaches zero in 2022.

One of the reasons South Korea is such an attractive market is due to the strong popularity of the fruit, as it enjoys a reputation for anti-aging effects and an association with healthy eating, particularly among the youth. The popularity of a 2009 TV show which extolled the healthiness of blueberries, as well as the explosion of TV shopping channels can be credited in part for fueling this boom. Despite having just a third of Japan’s population, South Korea’s blueberry consumption has now overtaken its larger neighbor—which used to be the largest Asian market for the fruit—and is expected to grow even further as the blueberry’s health benefits receive increasing media attention.

Adding to this success is the fact that the blueberry harvest in Oregon has been particularly fruitful this year, and is expected to exceed 100 million pounds according to the Oregon Blueberry commission. Much of the harvest will go towards exports, and the growth of the industry has amplified expectations of exports to other Asian markets as well, including Vietnam and the Philippines. As per the conditions specified in the recent TPP agreement signed by 12 countries, blueberry exports to Japan and Malaysia may also benefit from lowered tariffs if the deal is ratified and implemented, but Oregon may also face stronger competition from other international blueberry producers in the agreement such as Canada.

Oregon’s agricultural trade relationship with South Korea also includes dairy, meat, and other organic products, making the country the fourth largest market in Asia for Oregon’s exports.

Kyu Seok Shim is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington and MA candidate at Johns Hopkins University - SAIS.