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Interview with Japanese Farmers'
and Consumers' Cooperatives Representatives

"The government is re-writing the law to allow
corporate ownership of farming,
and farmers are feeling very threatened." 

St. Louis, Missouri

Mika Iba, Osamu Horii, Yoko Nakagawa and Masako OgawaThis interview with Mika Iba, Osamu Horii, Yoko Nakagawa and Masako Ogawa was conducted in St. Louis, Missouri at the First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering, on July 18, 1998. Mika Iba translated between Japanese and English and was the organizer of a group of Japanese farmers' and consumers representatives attending the biodevastation conference. The interview was conducted by In Motion Magazine publisher Nic Paget-Clarke.

In Motion Magazine: What is the current situation for Japanese family farmers?

Mika Iba: (from the Network for Safe and Secure Food and Environment - NESSFE) I can briefly introduce you to Japanese agriculture. The population of Japan is now somewhere around 130 million people. Out of this 130 million people the farmers are about 6%. However over 90% of the farmers are part-time farmers. The majority of the part-time farmers have a higher income from outside of the farm, than from the farm. In other words the farmers are keeping the rice paddies at least for their own consumption. The average farm land acreage is about 1.2 hectares. It's very small. It's about 2.5 acres.

This situation is largely because of the national government's Farmland Law. This law has prohibited farmers from selling farmland to other than farmers, for other than farming purposes. The farmland could only be sold to other farmers for farming. But now this law is changing. The government is re-writing the law to allow corporate ownership of farming, and farmers are feeling very threatened.

On the other side, the importation of food has increased very rapidly in the last forty years. In the 1960s we had over 150 items under import restrictions, and now, after the Uruguay Round (publisher: the Uruguay Round of the GATT Treaties) we have zero - except for some exceptions on rice.

Since the Uruguay Round, there are now only one dozen import-restricted farm crops. The farmers, since the Uruguay Round, have felt very threatened - particularly the majority of the farmers making rice.

In addition, the government used to have the guarantee of the farmgate price. This also was lifted after the Uruguay Round.

Under the farmgate price rice system, the government buys rice from the farmers and then the government sells to the consumers. The government acted as a rice agent. In that way the government could guarantee a minimum farmgate price and lower the rice price for the consumers. Rice is the staple food for us.

This measure has been lifted so now farmers are thrown into free competition. As American farmers also understand, particularly rice farmers, when you have only one hectare of rice paddies, you can manage it by weekend farming but you cannot really spend time on marketing and other things. It is now decision-making time. Farmers either have to give up their paddy land, which was supplying their family rice and a surplus which was sold to the local people - or they continue under the new conditions.

The farmers' average age is about sixty years old. Younger farmers are very scarce. There are about 2,000 new farmers every year. We say that the farmer is on the verge of extinction.

Consumers are now also under a flood of imported food because the self-sufficiency ratio on grain is now less than 40%. They worry who are the producers outside of Japan and what kind of chemicals were applied to the food for the long transportation. Consumer safety concern is very high in Japan. Genetically-engineered food is one very good example.

Masako Ogawa: (farmer, playwright) In addition, there has been the set-aside program, a compulsory program for the last 25 years. Every year, 30% of the paddy rice was set aside. If farmers said no to this set aside program they were out of the government price support measures. Set-aside means you set aside 30% of your paddy land and don't grow rice there. The government did this because we had a surplus of rice. They encouraged you to grow something else. But the program to support the transportation of the crop was almost non-existent so it meant a 30% decrease of a farmer's income.

Mika Iba: There were some farmers who resisted this program and they were kicked out of the rural community because set-aside was imposed by the community unit, not by individual farmers. For example, this village shall set-aside 29% this year. If a farmer refused to set aside then the entire community was out of the price support program. That is the way that the government enforced this regulation.

By enforcing this set-aside program and not giving good enough support for the transport of the crops, the government could support agribusiness, importers, to import more agricultural produce into Japan. That's how the government is putting more effort into advancing our chemical industry, automobile industry, electric industry - but not farming industry.

In Motion Magazine: Does that mean there's more corporate farming stepping in?

Mika Iba: Not yet, but we expect new corporate farming to come into Japan. Del Monte is now using contract farming in Japan to grow tomatoes.and saying this produce is "locally grown".

Some places in prime farmland in Niigata Prefecture have been converted to a huge mega-shopping mall. That kills the community retail stores. The community life-style is completely changed.

In Motion Magazine: Why did you come to the conference?

Osamu Horii: (Japan Agricultural Local Network) Before coming to this conference we had three days of exchange programs with local farmers - two days in Iowa, and then a day with the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. We came to, first, have an exchange with American farmers so that we know who are American farmers, to confirm that American farmers are not our enemy. Japanese farmers tend to think that American farmers are the enemy because they export to us, that American farmers are trying to kill Japanese farmers. But it's not really true.

As for this conference, farmers' groups and individual farmers have very limited information about genetically-engineered crops. I wanted to learn about genetic engineering so that I can disseminate the truth among the farmers I organize.

Yoko Nakagawa: (Seikatsu Club Consumers' Co-operative) This is the first time I've come to the U.S. I wanted to see everything. As consumers we have been working on the issue of genetic engineering for the last two and a half years but we cannot understand why the American industry cannot segregate the genetically engineered soya and corn when so many Japanese and European consumers say we do not want to eat this or we want a label.

In Iowa we wanted to see who are the growers and how are the crops grown. Why is it impossible to segregate (genetically-engineered crops from not-genetically engineered crops)?. We saw the elevators and now we know their system.

Coming to this conference I wanted to get the energy of others so we would get inspiration to continue the struggle in Japan and develop our network.

Mika Iba: As for myself, I organized this tour. As a networker, inside and outside of Japan, I go to many conferences - although this is the first grassroots-type conference. I don't feel very easy going to all the conferences by myself, on behalf of everyone, just because I can speak English. For important conferences like this I try to organize a tour. It is also my purpose that farmers and consumers can meet for the first time on this tour. It is good for them to spend one week together and exchange opinions and develop linkage.

About segregation (of genetically-engineered and not genetically engineered crops), I think it's a very clever plot that developers of such seed, like Monsanto, made three years ago. In the first year it was, in the case of corn, less than 1% genetically-engineered. It must have been very easy to segregate, but they didn't. The mixed produce is now the norm, so consumers if they want segregation they have to pay premium. In this way the industry would not lose in any way. Also the elevators and barges and ships for the exports - these are all gigantic sites so for them to fill up the elevators and barge and ship is more important. The more you wait on the river to fill up the barge the more it costs. It's the ethics of the quantity. It works. I think it's not the individual farmer's intention. I wanted the people to see that.

In Motion Magazine: So the farmers would have to have their own distribution system to keep them separate?

Mika Iba: Yes, but in this free trade system that's very costly.

In Motion Magazine: It seems from the Japanese perspective that your main problem is the extinction of farmers, the corporate takeover of small farms.

Mika Iba: For farmers that is one major thing.

Osamu Horii: It is very serious for farmers. If the Diet (parliament) adopts the law allowing the corporate ownership of farmland then it means the death of farmers.

In Motion Magazine: What are some of the corporations involved?

Osamu Horii: Many food processors, like Kirin Beer. Kirin has actually developed a new Flavr-Savr tomato now pending to come into the market. The government has declared it safe, more or less. Del Monte. Big national farm machinery companies. Farm chemical companies. They are the first to come.

In Motion Magazine: Does this mean the end of sustainable farming in Japan?

Yoko Nakagawa: There are many consumers like me who support family farming in Japan. The farmers should not feel so depressed. We will find a way.

Mika Iba: Consumers have to be very careful. Some consumers look for "locally grown". But some of these locally-grown crops are under contract to Del Monte and Kirin. That's one place that consumers leaders like us should continue education.

In Motion Magazine: How much impact are consumers' unions having?

Yoko Nakagawa: It is different than in the U.S. as to how we can make an impact on the decision-making process on the national level. Throughout Japan we have consumers' cooperatives. They are like food co-ops and social justice advocacy put together in one organization. In each prefecture there is a confederation of consumers co-ops, and a national confederation. My consumer co-op, Seikatsu Club Consumers' Co-operative, in and around Tokyo, has already 250,000 membership. In each town and city and village where there are co-op members we have worked with the City Council, the town council, to adopt resolutions demanding that the national government consider the compulsory labeling program on genetically-engineered food. These kind of resolutions have already reached over 1,000 city and towns. But the national government has not responded to the petitions or resolutions.

This is the norm in Japan. Unfortunately there is a kind of democracy failure. When we are working under this kind of failure of democracy the consumers' groups have to find out how to protect themselves.

We have developed a direct trading linkage with the local farmers. Our co-op federation buys 900 tons of rice per month. That's all directly bought from farmers' groups. Regardless of the government programs and regulations we have these kind of initiatives going on. In that way we hope the government finally looks at what we are doing and then comes up with legislation to support these kind of activities.

What we want the government to understand is that the consumer cooperatives feel that we are acting in the role which governments should. When consumers' cooperatives discuss and negotiate with farmers' cooperatives to grow certain produce, such as oranges, then they talk with an orange farmers group. Everything should be transparent. We get all the information about the producers' costs and transportation costs so we can first make sure farmers are paid what they spent for production. So that farmers can sustain farming. That's a very important principle for us. Consumers' cooperatives pay a profit for farmers on top of that. The government should do this kind of thing. We feel that the farmers' healthy products sustain the farmers and their health. It is natural for consumers to sustain this kind of farming.

In Motion Magazine: You are developing a new kind of democracy?

Mika Iba: But again we come again to the national government law. We have a special act for consumers' cooperatives activities and farmers' cooperatives activities. Both acts prohibit any cooperatives from extending their advocacy or social activities beyond the border of local administration. You can not go out of the state borders. For example in Tokyo, they are so powerful but it is very difficult to do their work on a national level because there are so many restrictions. The farmers are doing very fine in the Niigata prefecture but is very difficult for them to link with other prefectures.

Business activities, however, can go beyond the border.

Masako Ogawa: I want to continue farming. I love farming. I want to do sustainable farming so that I can leave a healthy farm for future children and so that I can be appreciated by consumers for growing healthy produce.

Osamu Horii: My impression of being here is that I really realize how Japan is following American intensive agriculture in becoming mono-cropping. This really kills the diversity on farms. This was confirmed by the keynote speech of Dr. Vandana Shiva

Yoko Nakagawa: Everything is learning. It is sickly to see an entire state growing corn and soya only. Why don't American people eat locally grown vegetables? It is good to develop a linkage with consumers so that people can eat healthy and grow healthy.

Mika Iba: I share that opinion.

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Published in In Motion Magazine August 15, 1998