After racing in a giant circle across the Bangkok airport, accomplishing none of my wifi dependent tasks I hoped to do before my second (this) flight, I’ve finally just sat down at the same seat I got out of about half an hour. To clarify, my airport lap was not accidental: it was necessary to re-board my Singapore-bound flight for its Bangkok-Singapore leg. The flight was delayed for a few hours in the Narita airport this morning, which effectively turned my expected two-hour layover into a two-minute layover. During those two minutes, I managed to buy overpriced airport dried mango in attempts to combat the overpriced water onboard Scoot Airlines and lack of functioning water fountain in the airport. (The credit card limit at the store next to my gate was $10, so I had to buy mango + water to get the water before boarding.) At least Scoot airlines will never get my $4 for a bottle of water….
Today, however, began on a much more pleasant note. I began the day with an early morning run through some rice paddies about 20 minutes away from Narita Airport (adjacent to the airport hostel I stayed at last night). While I’ve seen many rice paddies in Japan in the past two weeks, I couldn’t help giving some extra thought so how these Narita paddies contrasted the few miniature (adorable) rice paddies I’ve seen on multiple rooftops in Tokyo . And how much more similar these expansive paddies were to the ones I’ve biked through in Milan’s South Agricultural Park about a month ago, now. As I’ve just surpassed the halfway mark of this summer’s trip, the similarities and interesting comparisons between my research in each city are cropping up everywhere (pun intended). I’m finding it more and more difficult to not interrupt my interviewees to tell them about a similar story in Budapest or how well they’d get along with some of my Milanese research contacts.
So, while I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: it consistently astounds and excites me how many similar stories of social, political, and environmental movements to develop local food systems (LFS) have occurred in parallel across the world. This summer, I’ve spoken to politicians, researchers, activists, business owners, and consumers who all recognize and seek to propagate the importance of urban residents connecting/reconnecting with their food sources. That connection/reconnection to one’s food sources can manifest in many different ways: e.g. through establishing direct consumer-producer relations, by growing one’s own food, or even by simply noticing domestic and regional labels in the produce aisle of a supermarket. Yet no matter what form of LFS I’ve been studying this summer, I’ve been continuously reassured that understanding where one’s food comes from is for some reason imperative in securing an economically viable, socially just, and environmentally friendly food system.
However, as inclined and motivated as my research contacts around the world are to advance LFS development, not all people share the desire and/or economic privilege to support LFS’s growth. Of course, that fact is a key motivator of my research: this summer, I hope to gain insight into how LFS can be more accessible to and beneficial for people of all socioeconomic classes. Paradoxically, however, the current exclusivity of many LFS—whether caused by cost or cultural barriers to entrance—often contributes to the decline of certain, established LFS.
Certain resounding paradoxes of how to develop accessible LFS were revealed to me during an interview yesterday with Mr. Hiroshi Toyoshima, from ‘PR and Social Movement Section’ of Daichi wo Mamoru Kai. Daichi wo Mamoru Kai, or Daichi, is one of Japan’s oldest, most well-established, and largest online organic food delivery systems. When I encountered Daichi’s stand at the farmers’ market last week, I had little idea how relevant the company’s development is to my research on post-WWII Japanese LFS development.
Daichi emerged from the same backdrop of food safety crises that spurred the development of Teikei, Japan’s system of direct producer-consumer distribution, and other consumer cooperatives in the early 1970s. However, Daichi’s origin can be traced more specifically to the failure of the ‘Student Movement’ in the late 1960s. The Japanese Student Movement, which opposed topics ranging from the Anpo treaty to the Vietnam War, failed to gain significant regard and response from the Japanese government.
Mr. Fujimoto, Daichi’s founder, was a prominent student activist, and he was quite disappointed when the Student Movement fizzled out. So, even as Mr. Fujimoto joined his student counterparts in finding work elsewhere, he sought to find an alternative way to make positive social change. At his new job at a publishing company, Mr. Fujimoto learned about what he found to be a peculiar phenomenon: how Japanese farmers used many chemicals to make “the perfect” fruits and vegetables to sell to the market but at the same time produced organic varieties of the same crops to consume themselves. Mr. Fujimoto also recognized the country’s rising fears about food safety, and he sought utilize his newfound knowledge to help make the country’s food supply safer.
Daichi was first established as a pro-organic NGO. The organization’s initial goals were two-fold: one, to get more farmers to produce using organic methods and two, to find customers for those farmers. Two years after its establishment, Daichi’s leaders realized the expansive resources needed to conduct their proposed work. They quit their jobs, and in 1977, transitioned Daichi from an NGO to a for-profit enterprise.
At this point, many Teikei members criticized Daichi for advocating organic food sales over the anti-capitalist ideals of “mutual assistance,” which are outlined in the Teikei Principles. During the 1970s, Daichi also tried marketing its organic food to agricultural cooperatives, yet the cooperatives rejected Daichi’s market structure for their established, barter-like systems. (These same agricultural cooperatives started purchasing organic food from similar market sources 5-to-10 years later.)
Despite criticism by other pro-local and pro-organic Japanese food distribution schemes, Daichi’s goal has always been to increase the sustainability of organic farming in Japan. Since the company’s inception, Mr. Fujimoto has recognized the importance of providing a fair, secure income to organic farmers to ensure that those farmers can continue to produce organic crops in the upcoming years.
Through the late 1980s, Daichi did this by providing an established group buying structure through which consumers could gain easy access to environmentally and socially sustainable food sources. In the late 80s, Daichi made its business more accessible and simple for consumers by transitioning to an individual ordering system.
While Daichi doesn’t require its producers to be certified organic, they must adhere to Daichi’s own rigorous production standards, which incorporate many organic principles. Furthermore, a key part of Daichi’s business activities are its social activities, which have ranged from organizing anti-GMO protests to hosting educational farm trips for school groups.
Today, Daichi operates primarily through its website. It connects its 300,000 customers to 2,500 producers, and the company maintains close relationships with each of those producers. Despite Daichi’s successes, however, the company has struggled to maintain its long-term sustainability. It has had difficulty attracting new customers, and the majority of its current customer base are in the 40s or older. Mr. Toyoshima attributes Daichi’s inability to attract young consumers to young people’s “inability to read sentences very carefully.” He cites young people’s busy lives, economic constraints, and familiarity with small screens and catchy advertisements as why they don’t choose to order food from Daichi instead of other online retailers, which tend to be less expensive and sell a only a small percentage of organic food.
Perhaps some of Daichi’s troubles will be answered this fall, when it merges with Oisix, another online food retailer. Unlike Daichi, Oisix currently maintains a younger consumer base. Oisix doesn’t have as rigorous of quality standards as Daichi, and the food items it sells are generally less expensive than their Daichi counterparts. However, Mr. Toyoshima described to me Daichi’s and Oisix’s current combined efforts, through which Daichi has started selling some of its products through Oisix’s online platform, and many customers are beginning to choose the higher quality, more expensive (Daichi) products over the Oisix ones.
Mr. Toyoshima has high hopes for the upcoming Daichi-Oisix merger, yet Daichi still faces much uncertainty ahead. Mr. Toyoshima is particularly anxious about the Daichi’s transition from a private to public company: he fears that the new shareholders will inhibit Daichi’s engagement in CSR activities and restrict the company to more mainstream market activities. Sure, it’s been ten years since Daichi’s last anti-GMO protest, yet the upcoming merger may make it harder to Daichi to prioritize any sort of oscial activities.
Finally, the paradox I mentioned about 850 words ago (sorry, these posts are long, I know):
Based on Mr. Fujimata’s and Daichi’s principles, the best way to secure a sustainable local food system—one based on the principles of organic farming—is to ensure organic farmers’ income and livelihoods to ensure they will continue to produce organic products. To continue ensuring organic farmers’ incomes, Daichi must increase its consumer base. To do that, Daichi tries to make more Japanese people interested in buying organic products: It does this through educational activities as well as providing an easy outlet (online shop) for customers to purchase organic products. However, past a certain threshold, Daichi cannot recruit anymore consumers who are really dedicated to purchasing organic food over less expensive food. Daichi then has to resort to cost-cutting techniques to attract new, cost-conscious customers. To make costs lower, however, Daichi has to sacrifice some of its quality standards or profit margin to farmers, both which reduces the company’s contributions to Japan’s food security.
~ Paradox 1 ~
More Daichi customers –> increased Japanese food security
But Daichi’s only potential customers left are those who value immediate cost-savings over organic principles
To recruit those customers, Daichi has to lower its organic standards and potentially risk decreasing its company’s contributions to increasing Japanese food security
After two weeks in Japan, I’ve experienced another significant revelation in terms of my personal opinions of food security. Before I began this trip, I was highly skeptical of whether local food systems can (I highly recommend the book The Locavore’s Dilemma) ensure a country’s food security any better—or even to the same extent—that secured, diversified international food trade networks can. Yet, throughout the course of my research here, I’ve encountered substantial anxiety from a wide range of interviewees about the rising prices of imported foods. Sure, Japan’s imported food supply may be secure to the extent that the country does not face any impending trade barriers due to global conflict. In fact, my first week in Tokyo, Japan and the EU began the new Free Trade Agreement. Furthermore, Japanese government officials currently seek to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership (even without the U.S.).
Yet strolling down the produces aisles of Japanese supermarkets, I understand why my interviewees are concerned. Yes, the $100, gorgeous packages of gift-wrapped, flawless fruits are something particular to Japanese people’s values of perfection. Yet the prices of more practical commodities, such as butter, sugar, wheat, and meat, are also increasing significantly. These price increases, which can be attributed to rising global fuel prices, increased demand from neighboring countries, like China, and climate-caused lower crop yields internationally, due pose a significant threat to Tokyo’s food security.
And, another paradox: when the economy is not doing well, Japan’s food security declines. Furthermore, increasing Japanese, domestic agricultural production can increase Japan’s food security, especially during rough economic times, by making the country less dependent on imported food with volatile prices. However, as Daichi has experienced, it is very costly to increase Japanese domestic production, and so that might not be possible during economic downturns—when food insecurity is the biggest issue.
~ Paradox 2 ~
Bad economy –> Japanese can’t afford high prices of imported food; food security declines
Increased Japanese, domestic agricultural production –> less expensive food in Japanese markets; food security increases
Bad economy –> too difficult/costly to increase Japanese domestic agricultural production
And with all that, I’m heading out of Japan tomorrow. I’ll arrive in Singapore tomorrow night, where I’m excited to learn from local food proponents in a country that imports over 90 percent of its food supply… yet that is known as the second most food secure nation in the world.