Interviewee: Ryo Kohsaka
Professor, Graduate School of Environmental Studies,
Interviewer: Kazuko Kojima
In May 2021, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), Japanese government officially adopted the Strategy for Sustainable Food Systems (MeaDRI),* its policy for building sustainable food systems. This national strategy is filled with ambitious and wide-ranging goals that include achieving zero CO2 emissions in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries by 2050.
To further understand this strategy and status and trends of the organic agriculture in Japan, we spoke with Professor Ryo Kohsaka, who serves as the Ministry of the Environment’s Committee member for Next National Biodiversity Strategy as a specialist in resource management and environmental policy.
*: Measures for achievement of Decarbonization and Resilience with Innovation
The Strategy for Sustainable Food Systems (MeaDRI) sets forth aspirational goals. What are the highlights and which points are most promising? Alternatively, are there any challenges and concerns?
First and foremost is the fact that the strategy aims to both raise productivity in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries, and improve environmental sustainability. For the first time, MAFF stating their intention to “catch two birds with one stone,” so to speak, and this is rather noteworthy.
Overall, the goals are rather high and have been set in anticipation of technological innovation, but that doesn’t mean sophisticated technological development is necessary before anything can happen. Looking at the strategy schedule, we can see that they are seeking to maximize the effectiveness of existing technologies by implementing them widely throughout society by around 2030 — what you could call “horizontal expansion” (or yoko-tenkai in Japanese). For example, industries have already begun using light, aroma and vibration in pest control, cloud-based forest geographic information systems in smart forestry, and drones to pinpoint application of fertilizer and pesticides. However, research and development is still needed for things like using AI or ICT in livestock management technologies.
Rather than whether or not this technological development is possible, the thing to consider is whether these technologies are desirable from the perspective of biodiversity or water cycles. For example, one goal is the stable production of so-called “elite trees” that can absorb CO2 in large quantities, but even if this contributes to carbon sequestration, we need to be prudent and consider any adverse effects the trees could have on water and biodiversity.
Another goal is to increase the proportion of organic farmland to 25% (1 million ha) of arable land. Right now this is only 0.5%. Is there any fundamental reason why organic agriculture hasn’t caught on?
Most Japanese people don’t have a negative impression of conventional agriculture, so I suppose there is limited awareness of the differences and incentives for farmers to shift towards organic agriculture. In many parts of the world, however, it’s common to hold the cautious view that there is a trade-off between agriculture and environmental issues, and that agriculture can have a negative impact on the environment. I think this is generally how it is in North America and East Asia. That view has created something of a seismic shift towards organic agriculture with lower environmental impact.
It feels as if there is a vague sense of trust, if not a myth, for conventional agriculture in Japan. However, leaving agriculture and the environment to their own devices doesn’t mean they’ll automatically work with one-another in reality. The MeaDRI might provide the opportunity to draw attention to these trade-offs.
Organic agriculture may be environmentally conscious, but is that enough to really appeal to consumers? What can be done to make more people interested in organic farming?
Along with increasing the proportion of organic farmland, another goal of the MeaDRI is to improve the reputation of domestic products differentiating themselves from imported products in environmental aspects. I think we need to go beyond that, and also aim to create differentiation by having regions develop their own unique character.
Using sake (rice wine) as an example, while sales of ordinary sake have stagnated, products from particular regions — what is considered “specialty local sake” — have been selling extremely well. This is because sake-producing areas in each region have fostered their own unique individual character. So even if they’re pricier than mass-produced products from national brands, with the right differentiation consumers are happy to pay more. In the same way, combining local brands with organic farming can become the incentive for consumers to say, “I want to support tomatoes from this area!”
In your latest book, “Food and Livelihoods Transformed Through Organic Agriculture (tentative translation),” you talk about how it’s essential to involve a wide variety of people in order to promote organic farming. What kind of involvement in particular?
As an example, I see a lot of promise in the “Half Farmer, Half X” lifestyle, or a part-time farming lifestyle. We don’t necessarily need large-scale “professional” farming to protect and foster local brands. Political policy up until now has focused mainly on the concentration and intensification of agricultural land to boost productivity, but by increasing participation in small-scale farming, we can also make better use of patchwork farmland that is inefficient to manage. It’s more than possible to continue creating traditional regional products on this type of farm, even though they’re small.
Then in the business sector, I’d like to see people in all kinds of industries connecting with organic farming. And not only major companies. When it comes to support for local brands, it may actually be easier to engage with small-to-medium businesses based in local regions. Adding organic products to the menu at company canteens could also be a good place to start — because, as they say, the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. I hope that organic farming helps more people broaden their awareness of local environmental issues to a global-scale.