SURF AND TURF – Growing Japanese

08 Mar 2002

‘Oh yes, I was a hippy back then,’ Katsushige tells me, ‘We were rebelling against authority, about standardization, about everything.’

This kind of frank enthusiasm is typical of Katsushige Myrayama, president of IFOAM Japan, the Japanese branch of IFOAM, the worldwide umbrella organization of the organic agriculture movement, with 750 member organizations and institutions in 100 countries all over the world.

Katsushige began farming organically 30 years ago, when his and four other families established a Kojinsha, a cooperative to grow organic produce and become as self-sufficient as possible. Kojinsha is now home to 50 families, who generate their own soft electricity, grow their own rice, fruit and vegetables and keep a stable of animals. Apprentices come from around the world to learn the farming techniques and Kojinsha way of life.

Kojinsha has been held up as the ideal farming community, but Katsushige didn’t stop there. Switching the pitchfork for the hard-pitch, he now spends most of his time walking the corridors of power, banging on closed doors and spreading the good word of Japan’s fledgling organics industry.

With a delegation of producers, IFOAM members and organic certifiers, Katsushige visited the Slow Food offices in Bra last week. Over a long Piedmontese lunch at Osteria Rosa Rossa, in the nearby village of Cherasco, Katsushige explained the issues facing organic farmers today.

‘The main problem,’ Katsushige says, ‘is that there is so little dialogue between producers, IFOAM and government, so the existing infrastructure for organic certification is hazy and complicated.’

The good news is that consumer awareness is on the rise, promoted by IFOAM tastings, publications and workshops. ‘But we have a problem in that consumers demand safe food, not necessarily organic food, so our first task is to clarify the difference.’

The traditional structure of Japanese farming presents another obstacle to organic development. A great number of Japan’s organic farms are small operations, tiny compared to Australian or American operations. ‘Their produce rarely goes to market, they are growing for their immediate locality only,’ Katsushige explains, ‘so there’s no need to go through the expensive certification procedures.’

The larger, mid-range farms could become certified organic but only with a significant surplus of produce to send to market.

Another challenge is the government’s increasingly open stance to imported organic foods. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture recently issued new Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS) which set out mandatory organic labeling requirements, organic production standards and third-party certification procedures. These came into effect in April 2001.

The new standards meant that 90% of existing Japanese organic produce failed to meet the criteria and lost their organic status (statistic from www.supermarkettoasia.com). International producers were thrilled, a brand new market place had opened overnight.

Japan’s organic foods market has grown over the last five years to a multi-billion euro industry. ‘Of course any growth of organic consumption is a good thing,’ Katsushige says, ‘but we particularly want to see our local farms develop an organic agenda.’ The strict certification procedures are suitable only for larger organic farms, with smaller start-up operations struggling under the red tape.

‘We need regulations that fit with Japanese traditions and production systems instead of a blanket set of rules and regulations, such as Codex.’ This is the international food code, whose stated aim is to create ‘a unique opportunity for all countries to join the international community in formulating and harmonizing food standards and ensuring their global implementation.’ (Codex Alimentarius homepage).

Japan’s organic industry is developing along different lines to that of Germany or America, ‘and the government needs to recognize that, they need to bend to our way of life and protect it.’

So far, Katsushige had painted a fairly grim picture and we weren’t even up to the main course. But, he continues there is a growing number of Japanese people actively seeking out organic foods. At this point a woman sitting opposite us joins the discussion. Tamako Shimane owns one of Tokyo’s only organic stores, Gen Organic Products, and actively sources Japanese produce: ‘There’s definitely an increase in interest and education, people come into the shop often with quite a lot of knowledge on organics, asking for locally produced foods’.

Over coffee, as the last plates are cleared and our lunch comes to a close, Katsushige concludes, ‘Our aim really isn’t to make money, it’s not a business. We want to promote a lifestyle. It takes a long time to change people’s minds, to convert the fast people, and we are both realistic and optimistic’.

Going forward, IFOAM Japan is gearing up to fight the good fight for Japanese organic foods, to protect their small farms and encourage Japanese to go slow when it comes to their local, national produce.

Perhaps Katshughige’s still a hippy at heart – ‘Probably always will be,’ he quips. But there’s now some seriously feisty political metal behind that benign farmer’s face. A good thing too, because as he says, ‘We’ve got quite a fight ahead’.

Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team

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