Sound and Healthy Future for Our Children

Organic Farming in Japan: Lessons for the World

Report from IFOAM Organic World Congress Part 1

I had the opportunity to participate together with organic farmers and activists from Japan during the IFOAM Organic World Congress held in South Korea in September, 2011. It was the first time the global federation of organic associations held such a large meeting in Asia. Here we will briefly summarize some of the main lessons from Japan as they are relevant to consumers, farmers, and everyone around the world.

Japan Organic Agriculture Association (JOAA) was founded in 1971 and has pioneered so-called Teikei systems, meaning close links between a farmer and a group of consumers. It is similar to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) but Teikei creates stronger connections that also allow the farmers to support the community and the consumers. During the IFOAM conference, Kubota Hiroko, Hayashi Shigenori, and Wakashima Reiko explained Teikei in detail. The workshops were lively with discussion and many questions from the participants from around the world.

Kubota Hiroko explained that most of Japan’s Teikei farmers have selected to not get the JAS (Japan Agricultural Standard) Organic Certification: “This JAS standard is enforced by the Japanese government and it is operated by third-party organic certification bodies in Japan as well as certification bodies abroad, including well-known European and American bodies. There is a strong sense that local Teikei groups do not need to be certified by such certification systems, especially by third-party accreditation bodies.”

Kubota noted: “Teikei activities provide many opportunities for farmers and consumers to meet together including farm visits, meetings, and so on. In Japan, Teikei is based on the principle of mutual cooperation of farmers and consumers, with the basic idea that everyone involved will be able to share a deep understanding about the farming methods.”

IFOAM has recently defined Participatory Guarantee Systems as “locally focused quality assurance systems.” This applies especially to farmers who sell their produce at farmers markets, regional natural shops and sometimes regional supermarkets, etc. The aim is to find novel ways to certify producers based on active participation of stakeholders, built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange.

Kubota explained that this is indeed identical to the Teikei system that has been developed in Japan: “Under the JAS organic certification system, the labeling of ‘organic’ is strictly ruled. We cannot use any ‘organic’ words or labels except by getting the JAS certification. From the viewpoint of JOAA, we would like to use the word ‘organic’ in a more friendly way, and through a more simple method. We are currently attempting to make models of applying PGS in Japan, with reference to the IFOAM definition.”

Saving seeds

Hayashi Shigenori was especially invited to the pre-conference on seeds held before the main IFOAM meeting in rural South Korea, about 3 hours from Seoul. He is a farmer in Chiba prefecture just east of Tokyo. He explained: “Japan Organic Agriculture Association held its first seed exchange among seed saving organic farmers in the Kanto region in 1982. Most of them are old farms. In 1995 JOAA’s Seed Group was established and has begun the freeze-preservation of seeds with collecting several data about seeds. In 2002 the Seed Network was founded in JOAA and has been promoting seed saving activities by regular events such as seed exchange and seminars.”

Hayashi is particularly concerned about F1 seed and hybrid varieties, as well as genetically modified organisms (GMO): “Hybrid varieties are bred by crossing varieties with different traits using Mendel’s Law that dominant traits are expressed in the first generation (F1), but the second generation (F2) on will have mixed traits expressed. Thus, they cannot be used in commercial production where uniformity is expected. It can be said that hybrid seeds were created so that high profit is secured for the seed companies. They are also expensive for the farmer. Seeds are fundamental for farming and it is not good if farmers are dependent on commercial companies for their seeds.”

Self-sufficiency is what is valued in organic agriculture, according to Hayashi: “It is important to find and foster the varieties kept for generations in different regions in order to be self-sufficient by saving such seeds rather than being swayed by economic efficiency that made many varieties disappear as they were abandoned and scrapped.”

During the pre-conference, a heated debate was held on the need for organic plant breeding, public breeding initiatives, and other efforts to conserve and develop biological diversity on organic farms. Several participants also spoke out strongly against global trade rules under the World Trade Organization and other Free Trade Agreements (FTA) that oblige countries to restrict seed saving. In particular, draconian rules regarding intellectual property rights are making it almost impossible for farmers in some parts of the world to freely share seeds with each other. In fact, Japan has resisted such international pressure and saving and exchanging landrace varieties is still allowed.

Consumers Enjoy Safe Food

Wakashima Reiko made an appeal as a Teikei consumer, noting that “in Teikei, since food is not a commodity, consumers have taken the view of having an opportunity to share some of the surplus from a producer that is basically self-sufficient. Since self-sufficiency is a basic premise, the producer becomes a multi-item producer who inevitably grows small quantities of a large number of crops. This is very effective in terms of risk aversion to deal with weather conditions or insects. In the case of a single crop, a big economic loss will be the result at the time of a bad harvest. Also, lots of chemical pesticides may be used. However, in small-quantity multi-item production, such worries do not exist. The farmer does not experience heavy losses, although a large profit is not made. A stable way of life becomes possible.”

Wakashima is a consumer who belongs to a Teikei group to support and enjoy safe food: “We started this Teikei 38 years ago with farmers in Miyoshi village in Chiba prefecture. We have 26 participating farmers who own small-scale family farms of around 1.2 ha each. In this particular Teikei, we are about 800 consumers living in Tokyo and the urban areas around the capital. A producer sends vegetables to a consumer collection point directly once every week. In all, we have 116 such places where the producer and the consumer can meet face to face every week.”

However, the March 11, 2011 earthquake and nuclear accident in Fukushima prefecture, where her parents live, has been a huge tragedy for many people. Wakashima explained: “Due to the nuclear disaster, there was an evacuation advisory. The people who were evacuated from their land were in tears. In the surrounding area, people had to make up their own minds, and there were many people who did not take refuge. My parents belong to this group. They are people who were born on the land, who grew up eating what they harvested on the land, who got married on the land, who bore and brought up children, and who have always lived on the land. Finally, soon they will return to the soil of the land, in order for new life to be born once more.”

Wakashima noted: “This nuclear disaster has separated that which is indivisible. Nuclear power and human beings cannot live together at all. That has now been abundantly clarified.” Her advice to people is to eat healthy foods, such as brown rice, fermented food such as miso soup, soy sauce, pickles and natto. This diet was introduced in 1945 by medical doctors in Hiroshima to evacuate the radioactive Cesium from our body. Wakashima also advised everyone to appreciate the real value of food, reminding us to “eat foods with thankfulness toward nature, respectfulness toward farmers, mindfulness toward all creations.”

It was encouraging to listen to these three speakers and learn from their experiences. As consumers, we share a huge responsibility for many of the problems facing the planet. We need to consider all the options for changing our bad habits and make efforts to overcome the current troubles.

By Martin J. Frid
Consumers Union of Japan

Tagged on: