A Japanese perspective on organic farming (2)

This is an excerpt from the introduction to "Some Concerns About Organic Agriculture" by my friend Hiroyuki Tateno. He is an organic farmer active in western Japan. We will post more excerpts of his work later.

Is organic farming really "agriculture"?

Claiming that organic farming is not really agriculture may get me in trouble, but I believe a problem began when organic farming was forced into the framework of “agriculture as a production business.” This is a problem that extends beyond organic farming, but much of what is called the agriculture crisis started when farming was turned into a production industry. Originally, farming was not agribusiness: it was a way of life.

From there, an economic production and distribution system was born, and before long the business part grew to an unmanageable size and pushed the original meaning of farming out. Particularly since the Meiji era in Japan, agriculture has been industrialized in the name of modernization; in more recent times, the plunder of the food supply in the name of liberalization has come to be seen as correct and necessary.

Anyone who takes a hard look at contemporary farming communities in Japan can understand that the direction of industrialization and commercialization through modernization was a blunder: conversely, if this mistake goes unnoticed, the belief that a solution to the agriculture problem can be reached with even more industrialization and commercialization through genetic modification technology will persist.

There are two main problems here. Farming naturally entails taking care of living things such as vegetables, rice and livestock, and raising them to be as healthy and full of vitality as possible. This is the domain of life, the same as human child rearing and education. Changing this basic domain through the desire for efficiency, industrialization for large-scale production, and commodification is the first problem.

The second problem follows when the harvested vegetables, rice, and livestock are put on the market. In order to sell agricultural products as commodities, only the necessary part is removed; this portion is preserved to avoid any change in appearance or quality, and it is put up for sale. Here, living agricultural products must be killed (or at least given the appearance of lifelessness). The commercial market distribution of commodities (agricultural products) is only possible by turning living agricultural products into lifeless things. (Accordingly, the commercialization of agricultural products began with processed foods).

From the outset, farming, based as it is in the living world, cannot be expected to fit into an industrial system: that is, a system of making commercial products from lifeless things. Commercialization through market distribution quickly changed agriculture from a life-based to a commerce-based way of thinking, and the notion that only things which can be sold are good has come to control agriculture. Farming dedicated to raising and nurturing “life”, that is to say, the organic domain, has been submerged into this kind of agriculture, the territory of things and products which are made to be sold.

Somewhere along the line, organic produce became simply another variety of product to be bought and sold. Here is the heart of the problem, because organic, life-centered farming exists on an entirely different plane from the kind of agriculture which simply manufactures goods and commodities.

I believe that the true meaning of organic farming lies in a return from an agriculture defined by the production of commodities to the roots of farming, that is the production of life. The evolution of contemporary agriculture as another manufacturing industry takes us on the road to an terribly efficient plundering of the natural world, while the path of agriculture as the production of life, that is, organic agriculture, is an evolving, always growing understanding of what it means to live in harmony with the natural world.

As long as we continue along the road of contemporary industrial farming, organic farming in its role as a life-producing industry cannot thrive.

Ultimately, the true value of organic agriculture lies not in “farming as industry” but rather in the act of farming itself.

Part 3