A Japanese perspective on organic farming (5)

(Translated from the writing of Japanese organic farmer Hiroyuki Tateno)

Does Japan’s low food self-sufficiency make it unsuitable for organic farming?

Japan’s currently has a food self-sufficiency of 28% for grains, and a little less than 40% using a calorie base. While this is rightly considered a crisis, there is a problem greater than low food self-sufficiency facing Japan: Japanese today believe that Japan is not suited to agriculture. In the post-war years, when Japan was aiming at high and fast economic growth, children were taught in elementary school social studies classes that Japan was not suited for agriculture.

The argument is that Japan has a shortage of arable, tillable land. But is it really so limited? Undoubtedly, when compared to the U.S., China, or Australia, Japan is small. But Japan has more available farmland than many European countries, including England, Germany, Italy, and Denmark. Furthermore, although England and Germany are smaller in area than Japan, they have achieved far higher food self-sufficiency rates, near 100%. The argument that Japan is too small needs to be examined more closely.

The next point commonly cited is that Japan is a mountainous country with little flat land suitable to agriculture. Certainly, Japan has many mountains, but these mountains are not simply snow and rock covered barren lands. For the most part, they are treasure houses blessed with fresh greens and mountain vegetables. Moreover, food self-sufficiency rates in mountainous countries such as Italy and Switzerland are not nearly as low as Japan; a mountainous terrain is not necessarily a reason for low food self-sufficiency.

Finally, it is said that Japan’s farmland is mixed with residential areas, making it inefficient and unsuited to medium-and large-scale production. Compared to the wheat and cornfields of America and Canada, which stretch out as far as the eye can see, it may be easy to think this, but efficiency and self-sufficiency are not the same. Mixed crop cultivation does more to raise food self-sufficiency than simple monocrop cultivation, and it can actually be an advantage to food self-sufficiency to have farmland divided into small plots, as it is in Japan. Furthermore, the Japanese way of having farmland border residential areas means that the distance between production and consumption centers is much smaller than many Western nations. Sustainable, self-sufficient agriculture is not simply a question of producing more—the point is to get produce onto the tables of consumers. In Japan, fresh produce can be easily supplied because production areas are never more than a few hours away—and often much closer.

Japan, rich in the changes of the four seasons brought by the Asian monsoon, has a mild, rainy climate well suited to agriculture. Despite its ample rainfall, a mild climate, and rich soil, Japan has not thought seriously about developing these abundant resources; rather, with almost no mining or manufacturing resources such as petroleum or iron ore, it has chosen the path to becoming an industrial nation. To top this off, Japanese people have been educated in the school system that Japan is a country without resources. There are plenty of resources, but we are looking in the wrong places, for the wrong reasons, with the wrong aims.

As post-war Japan focused on developing a processing and trade-based economy, it became possible to import agricultural products with surplus income from trade. As even foods that could be easily produced in Japan began to be imported instead, this “Japan is unsuitable for agriculture” education became necessary. Inevitably, the average Japanese citizen’s contempt for agriculture followed.

In this context, a low food self-sufficiency unmatched in the developed world was born.