Guest post by Chen Yantao
Editor’s note: Today, chinadialogue published an article about the development of Community Supported Agriculture in China (“We’re all farmers now”). For the growing number of citizens wanting to participate directly in sustainable farming efforts, there are also good examples to look to overseas.
Japan’s Daichi group is one such example. For 35 years, this organisation has been working to connect farmers and consumers, who share both risks and profits for the sake of safer, healthier food. The following is an article about the group’s work, by Chen Yantao of China’s Xiaokang magazine. It was first published last year, but remains highly relevant to the Chinese discussion – and so we are reposting it here, with full English translation.
In the blistering heat of summer 2010, there was a spike in vegetable prices in Tokyo and other big cities in Japan. But one group of farmers stood their ground in the face exorbitant prices. They sold their vegetables far below market rates to an organisation called Daichi-wo-Mamoru-Kai, or the Association to Preserve the Earth.
Daichi was established in 1975 with the goal of eradicating harmful pesticides and providing a stable supply of organic farm produce. The Japan of 1975 had similarities with China of today. There were high levels of public anxiety over food safety, especially concerning pesticides and fertilisers used in fruit and vegetable farming.
Japan’s economic boom was just taking off. After living through 30 years of post-war poverty, people were eager for mass production and mass consumerism.
Back then, the thick smoke belching from factory chimneys was seen as a sign of modernity. In the countryside, traditional farming practices, which had developed over hundreds of years, were considered backward. City dwellers increasingly wanted vegetables and fruit that looked juicy and bright. Huge quantities of pesticides were sprayed and fertilisers applied in the name of an “efficiency revolution”. The aim was to improve agricultural yields and reinvent Japan’s agricultural sector.
Daichi was created in response. Its founder, countryside-born Kazuyoshi Fujita, started out selling vegetables from a cart, helping farmers using mineral fertilisers – and being punished by customers. Their vegetables tasted great but, since they weren’t sprayed with pesticides, they showed signs of insect damage and struggled to fetch a good price.
Fujita’s “safe vegetables” gradually expanded to markets all over Tokyo. Just one year later, close to 300 farmers and consumers were involved.
Some 35 years have passed and Daichi has grown into a large organisation with a membership of 2,500 producers and 91,000 consumers and an annual turnover of 15.3 billion yen (1.02 billion yuan). Its business operations extend to home delivery, online sales, wholesale, directly-run greengrocers, restaurants, cafes and more.
Fujita is a realist. He says it’s pointless merely to shout slogans against pesticide use, and that what’s needed is to initiate and popularise a new set of values. It starts with the small things: a single pesticide-free radish placed in the hands of a consumer is better than fruitlessly yelling out 100 slogans, he says.
“We hope to establish new farming practices and a new distribution system as well as a new type of consumer culture. For Daichi to grow, all three of these are needed,” Fujita told reporters. By new farming practices, he means refraining as far as possible from pesticide and disinfectant use, applying organic fertilisers to enrich the soil and constructing a harmonious circular agriculture model. And his “new distribution system” is one in which members sign a contract that connects producers with consumers, and under which the two parties share both the risks and benefits of production for the sake of healthier and safer produce.
The bond between the producers and the consumers not only safeguards long-term consumer health but also guarantees stable revenues for the farmers. Most importantly, it protects the long-term fertility of the soil. A new consumer culture means educating customers that it’s not what fruits and vegetables look like that’s important, but whether they are safe and tasty.
It’s only after experiencing many ups and downs through the past 35 years, that the team has found the balance between profit-making and social responsibility. In the first five years, they had no business or distribution experience, and losses were unavoidable.
At that time, almost all farmers were using pesticides and fertilisers. In the beginning, farmers believed Daichi was advocating a return to primitive farming practices. And besides, without pesticides it was difficult to control plant diseases and insect pests. Many consumers didn’t want to buy vegetables that had visible pest damage. “We wanted to create a new kind of distribution relationship, one which gets consumers and producers to trust each other, where farmers wouldn’t lose out because of market price fluctuations and one where they wouldn’t grow unhealthy food in the pursuit of profits. This was our motivation,” one of Daichi’s co-founders Mr Hasegawa said.
In order to maintain the purity of organic farming, Daichi worked with Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to introduce a new set of organic farming standards. In January 2000, they also published production processing rules on all kinds of agricultural products they were selling. Over the next 10 years, these rules were continuously improved.
The price of Japanese vegetables rose sharply in 2010 because of the scorching weather. If the famers who had signed up with Daichi had sold their produce at market, they could have earned a fortune. “But we wouldn’t do that,” said Sato Mao, chairman and general manager of a Daichi member supplier. “Windfall profits only last a short while; building up a stable cooperation and mutual trust is still the most important thing.”
Daichi and the contracted farmers agree on prices for each year’s produce. Because organic farming is more costly and uses more manpower than ordinary farming, organic goods are inevitably more expensive than their non-organic counterparts. In China, the “organic” price tag keeps the average consumer at a respectful distance, while a small and wealthy minority are alone able to enjoy this “health food”. Back in the early days in Japan, Daichi also encountered this problem.
Fujita believes the answer is to work tirelessly to promote the products and guide consumers. Only when the number of consumers rises will prices fall to more reasonable levels, he says. These days in supermarkets, Daichi’s products are 1.3 to 1.5 times the price of regular goods. Their consumer group has expanded to the majority middle classes.
From the days of hawking vegetables from the back of carts in the 1970s to its advanced home-delivery system of today, Daichi has felt its way forward, step by step. Now all of the organisation’s produce can be ordered by phone, fax or online and delivered to your door within 36 hours.
This article was first published by Xiaokang magazine, in the first edition of 2011.
Image by filmmaker in japan