Working out the Kinks: Labor in Sustainable Agriculture
Extracts from Ceres No. 148
Factoring-in the labor cost of sustainable agriculture
by Coen Reijntjes
Coen Reijntjes is a staff member of the Information Centre for Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture, P.O. Box 64, 3830 AB Leusden, The Netherlands.
While the virtues of low-external-input, ecological farming are widely proclaimed - often to the point of being romanticized - much doubt remains as to whether such systems, practised by smallholders, can yield enough to feed the world's increasing billions. Skeptics insist there isn't enough organic matter or labor - especially labor - available to support a major shift to organic methods, and complain that the productivity of such systems is too low for the job at hand.
How valid these criticisms are - and how much is mere assumption - is difficult to decide, given the lack of hard data available to provide a comparison of the costs (in terms of labor and capital needs, risks and environmental effects) and benefits of inorganic, chemical-based versus organic techniques.
Recent studies, however, tend to confirm that local conditions will almost always dictate the answers, and the best systems are usually those developed by smallholders themselves - in response to population pressure, market opportunities for their produce, and dwindling land availability.
Spur of scarcity
Most farmers in the tropics work little plots around their own homes under diverse, complex conditions, often combining subsistence and market production. Much of the work falls on women, as men seek cash in non-farm activity or hire out as field labor on larger farms. Minimizing risk is a prime family objective.
Simultaneously, land availability is dropping while population - and hence the labor pool - is growing. This is an important driving force for change in smallholder farming. If people cannot move to areas where land and other resources are still plentiful, they have to increase the amount and predictability of the crops they produce in a limited area.
"Without the spur of scarcity, people do not intensify their farming, for the simple economic reason that it is more work, and return on labor may be smaller," observed social scientist Ester Boserup in a 1981 study of pre-industrial agricultural societies.
As illustrated in Robert Netting's article on the Kofyar people of Nigeria (see page 22), such soil-saving techniques as manuring, intercropping and elaborate ridging - all highly labor-intensive - may not be adopted until demand, generated by population growth and the prohibitive expense of less labor-intensive techniques, makes their use vital.
Netting sees Boserup's model of intensification as revolutionary, since it casts doubt on other scenarios that make technology the prime engine of agricultural change. The latter views progress as the ability to tap larger sources of energy, rendering human labor less necessary and more efficient as animal and mechanical power and fossil fuel provided substitute energy sources. Technological inventions, from the digging-stick to animal traction and the plow, iron sickles - and finally tractors - made it possible to produce more while increasing labor productivity. In general, however, these "labor-saving" inventions are only useful where sufficient land is available and labor is relatively scarce - conditions that don't usually apply to smallholder farming on tiny plots or to the mixed cropping systems typical of land-intensive agriculture. There, the capital needed for higher technology may not be available, or could be used more profitably elsewhere. Replacing human labor with mechanical power is also socially unacceptable when alternative job opportunities are scarce.
Nevertheless, improvement and development of implements, especially those which can support "organic" techniques such as mulching, composting, management of trees, etc. would be very helpful to decrease labor requirements of those same techniques.
Environmental degradation - the "cardinal sin" to proponents of ecological farming - is often acceptable to smallholders as long as survival is not at stake. In fact, it may even be needed to a limited extent as an incentive for intensification. As Netting's Nigeria study shows, "traditional" intensification seems to lead to better conservation of resources. This was also the conclusion of a study on intensification of land use in Machakos, Kenya (Tiffen et al., 1994, to be discussed in a subsequent issue of Ceres).
However, serious degradation may occur where farmers don't succeed in adapting their systems fast enough to needs or where economic, political or cultural processes seduce or force farmers into unsustainable development, or drain their resources.
"Modern" farming methods involving inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and improved seed varieties are land- and labor-saving. But they bring with them their own problems, chiefly their financial cost, negative impact on biodiversity, and environmental pollution. Readily adopted in regions with favorable production conditions, in the major part of rain-fed agricultural regions of the tropics their adoption was restrained by the cost of inputs and unsuitability to local conditions.
Many poor areas that did adopt such methods have seen the benefit go bust. In Argao in the Philippines, for example, a decade after Green Revolution farming methods were adopted, farmers found their harvests started to decline due to degradation of the agro-ecosystem following overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilizers (see page 25).
Realizing their survival was at stake, smallholders in Argao were motivated to shift to organic contour farming. That system is much more labor-intensive, not only in the initial transition period when the contour hedges are established, but also after the ecosystem is more or less balanced again, at which point fields still require 50 per cent more labor than did chemical farming.
On the other hand, after establishing their organic contour farm, households can obtain the same level of production as with chemical farming, but with a higher net profit per hectare because they no longer have to pay for chemical inputs. Greater profit is possible by mixing fruit or other high-value trees in with the contour hedges.
The Filipino farmers found it difficult to give up cash income from off-farm work, in order to dedicate their time to changing over to an organic farming system. However, such transitions can be adapted to each household, by spreading construction of contour hedges over several years, and only gradually combining organic practices and chemical fertilizers.
The situations were relatively favorable in both Kofyar and Argao for intensification and transition to organic farming. But for farmers in more marginal conditions the transition is more difficult because it threatens their immediate survival.
External factors also can discourage farmers from investing time and labor to make the transition: unfavorable government pricing and subsidy policies; farm indebtedness; insecure land tenure; the strong lobby of agribusiness; extensionists' and researchers' disinterest in organic farming and in farmers' knowledge and agricultural traditions; a lack of information, training and general support (Kessler & Moolhuijzen, 1993).
It is obvious farmers will not move to more sustainable systems unless the need is apparent in terms of their own survival, and many of the above-mentioned hurdles are taken out of their way.
By Marie-Christine Comte
Even the most enthusiastic booster of organic agriculture will admit that cutting down on external inputs - chemical fertilizers, pesticides and mechanization - inevitably means more "internal inputs," which is one way of saying more plain, hard work. Socially, this can be a good thing in many developing countries, where there is often a surplus of unused or under-used labor. But what looks good to an economist worried about unemployment still feels like a pain in the back and arms for the men and women who actually swing the hoes and jembes.
Their labor would seem a lot lighter if they knew the end result would be a better, more sustainable way of farming, and would bring a profit in the final analysis. Unfortunately, very few "final analyses" have been made. Attempts to quantify the actual labor versus economic returns equation in low-external-input agriculture are about as rare as hens' teeth.
How do such systems affect the management and planning time of a farm family? Is the farmer overburdened by a physical effort he probably can't sustain? Is he - more often she - swamped by the endlessly repeated tasks required to produce natural compost or control weeds and pests?
An overview of the literature provides few answers. Most studies on labor constraints in organic agriculture concentrate on rather narrowly defined economic aspects, rarely if ever on the full social and ecological picture. Nevertheless, some pioneering work has been done, and some hesitant steps have been taken along the route to better understanding.
Two studies published in the last 20 years will serve as background for an understanding of the organic agriculture question. The first, Report and recommendations on organic farming/USDA Study Team on Organic Farming, was published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1980 - to a chorus of shock and dismay from proponents of mainstream, high-input agriculture. It is a comprehensive study of organic farming in the United States, Japan and Europe, focusing on the rationales for choosing this method. Some of the findings of the study were that the organic fanning movement covers a wide spectrum of practice and is not limited by size; is motivated by concerns for conservation, health and cost control; uses modem techniques, equipment and management practices, is suited to crop/livestock interdependence and is more labor-intensive, less energy consuming and less profitable - within narrowly defined limits - than conventional farming.
The second work, Alternative Agriculture, a study by the Committee on the role of Alternative Farming Methods in Modem Production Agriculture of the National Research Council published by the National Academy Press (Washington, D.C.) in 1989, was almost equally controversial (see Ceres No. 125, Sept.-Oct. 1990). The first part of the report deals with history and analysis, the second reviews 11 case studies of U.S. farms using a variety of alternative methods for different types of production.
In addition to these two basic overviews, a number of studies dealing directly or indirectly with the subject of labor in sustainable agriculture have been published in the last five years. It is hoped that the following partial list will stimulate researchers and development agents to pursue the subject further and more thoroughly. The need for more work in this area is as obvious as it is urgent.
Smallholders, householders: farm families and the ecology of intensive, sustainable agriculture, by R. Netting, Stanford University Press, 1993.
Compares the efficiency of various agricultural systems and shows that labor aspects are a key element in farmers' choice of a farming system.
Employment and income effects of biotechnology in Latin America- a speculative assessment, by R. Galhardi, International Labour Office, Geneva, 1993.
Deals with agricultural employment and employment creation in commercial farming using biotechnology.
Labor and production barriers to the reduction of agricultural chemical inputs, by M.J. Pfeffer, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1992.
In contrast to labor-displacing technologies, farming with reduced chemical inputs may increase labor demands so that concerns about labor supply may affect farmer adaptability in reducing chemical inputs. Most of the New Jersey farmers surveyed think it is difficult to reduce chemical inputs because additional labor is hard to find, and their own labor inputs would have to increase. Labor supply is less elastic for farmers who hire no labor, and they have less access to social networks that would provide them with sources of additional workers.
Benefits of diversity: an incentive towards sustainable agriculture, United Nations Development Programme, New York, 1992.
Reviews a series of organic agriculture projects in developing countries, ranging from vegetables in Indonesia to groundnuts in Paraguay. It concludes, among other things, that the labor requirements of organic farming are generally higher, especially if they are evenly spread over the year. This may represent a constraint to the adoption of organic farming when there are seasonal off-farm employment opportunities, such as tourism.
ILEIA Newsletter, Vol. 8, No. 4,
Information Centre for Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture (ILEIA), Leusden, The Netherlands, 1992. Each issue of this quarterly newsletter has a theme, and the December 1992 issue is devoted to energy, which includes human and bio-energy. Articles from different parts of the world analyse labor needs for various farming practices.
Ecological agriculture in South India: an agro-economic comparison and study of transition, by A. de Jager and E. van der Werf, Landbouw Economisch Institut, The Hague, 1992.
Describes two research programs carried out on organic agriculture on various sites in South India. The comparative performance of seven farm pairs, consisting of one organic and one conventional reference farm, is analysed in relation to agronomic and economic performance.
Organic farming as a business in Great Britain, by M.C. Murphy, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, 1992.
Estimates that the income levels on wholly organic farms compared unfavorably with conventional farms, and that total income was less than the Value of farmers' and spouses' unpaid manual labor. In contrast, partly organic farms, especially those engaged in arable cropping and horticulture, compared very favorably with conventional farms.
Comparative profitability of organic milk production in Quebec, by D. Burgoyne in Agriculture-Montreal, 48: 5, 1992. (In French)
Comparisons between highland low-input production and organic production show excellent results for the latter in terms of standardized return to labor, per cow, per hectolitre of milk and per man-work unit.
Attitudes and agricultural practices of sustainable farmers in the midwest and south, 1991 and 1992, Rodale Institute Research Center, Kutztown, Pa., (U.S.A.)
Rodale Institute publishes a whole series of how-to booklets for the low-external-input farmer, some of which deal directly with labor issues. It also publishes The New Farm, a magazine that contains stories of farmers switching to sustainable farming practices, and a bimonthly newsletter, The International Ag Sieve, which discusses the experiences of farmers and researchers around the world in adapting regenerative farming practices. Write to Rodale Institute, 611 Siegfriedale Road, Kutztown, PA 19530, U.S.A., to get a complete listing of publications.
Issues and perspectives in sustainable agriculture and rural development: main document No. 1, FAO/Netherlands Conference on Agriculture and the Environment, FAO, 1991.
An overview of the main issues of sustainable agriculture, including labor, management, and the sociocultural and political aspects.
In the face of change: a rapid reconnaissance survey of northwest horticultural crop producers, by L.S. Brophy et al., in American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 6: 1, 1991.
Interviewees included both certified organic farmers and conventional farmers who are adopting innovative production methods. Less experienced growers identified practical crop management issues as their primary problems while the more experienced ones were concerned with labor and regulatory problems.
An economic comparison of conventional and reduced-chemical farming systems in Iowa, by C. Chase and M. Duffy in American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 6: 4, 1991.
Labor requirements, production costs, yields and economic returns were evaluated for conventional and reduced-chemical cropping systems in northeast Iowa from 1978 to 1989.
Organic agriculture and alternative food production: economic issues, by J. Jilkova in Vedeckotechnicky-Rozvoj-v-Zemedelstvi, No. 8, 1991. (In Czech)
Assessing the economic feasibility of alternative agriculture, the paper shows that more labor, primarily for vegetables and root crops, is required and that yields are generally 10-20 percent below those of conventional farming.
Data collection for alternative agriculture, edited by H. Staude, Kuratorium für Technik und Bauwesen in der Landwirtschaft e.V., Darmstadt, 1991. (In German)
This first KTBL collection of farm management data for alternative farming systems covers organization, machine and labor requirements as well as costs and returns for cash crops, vegetables, fodder crops, livestock enterprises and general information.
The change-over to ecological farming: farm requirements and consequences when implementing ecological farming. Documentation of practical experience at different stages of development and tests in various locations, by R. Rantzau, B. Freyer and H. Vogtmann, 1990. (In German)
Analyses a 1986-89 research project in the German Federal Republic dealing with the shift to alternative farming methods. The economic conclusions suggest that wheat, rye, porridge, oats, pearl barley and spelt are the best crops to grow during the change-over and can achieve above-average labor productivity.
Crop yields and economic returns accompanying the transition to alternative farming systems, by J.D. Smolik and T.L. Dobbs in Journal of Production Agriculture, 4: 2, 1991.
Crop yields and economic performance of alternative, conventional and reduced-tillage farming systems were compared over a five-year transition period in South Dakota. Average labor costs were highest for the alternative system for row crops and for the conventional system for small grains.
Organic viticulture in West Germany, by S. Dabbert and J. Oberhofer in American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 5: 3, 1990.
Data on expenses for fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and building, on labor requirements, on the quantity and quality of yields and on marketing channels and price premiums are compared to data on conventional grape operations from statistical sources.
Sustainable agriculture in temperate zones, edited by Charles A. Francis, Cornelia B. Flora and Larry D. King, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, 1990.
Covers all the various practices of sustainable agriculture, including converting from conventional systems to a sustainable agricultural operation.
Profitability of organic farming in Denmark, by A. Dubgaard, P. Olsen and S.N. Sorensen, Statens-Jordbrugsokonomiske-Institut, No. 54, 1990. (In Danish)
The economic significance of cost savings versus price is investigated in the organic farming context. Considerable price premiums are needed on organically produced farm products to obtain a remuneration of labor and capital at about the same level as in conventional agriculture.
Organic field crop production: a review of the economic literature, by W.A. Knoblauch, R. Brown and M. Braster, Cornell University, No. 90-10, 1990.
In general, more extensive use of rotations and higher labor requirements characterize organic systems. Most organic farmers switched from conventional systems because of strong convictions about protecting the environment and because of high chemical cost.
By Saleem Ahmed
Saleem Ahmed is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, 1777 East-West Road, Honolulu, Hawaii 96848. This article is based on research he conducted in Japan in 1993 under a Fulbright fellowship.
Mention Japanese agriculture and most people think automatically of high-intensity mechanized farms, using large doses of chemical inputs to turn out bumper yields of blemish-free produce - the kind of produce demanded by the very particular, almost finicky urban consumers of Tokyo or Osaka.
Few are aware of the small but rising number of Japanese growers who don't use inorganic chemicals, relying instead on organic methods to obtain yields 60 to 90 per cent of those of their chemical-employing neighbors. Though their produce has insect holes - even worms once in a while - a significant number of people prefer such "off-quality, but safe" food, and are willing to pay a higher price for it. Under the country's unique tekei systems, consumers have actually entered into "co-partnership" with organic farmers, helping them financially, committing to buy all produce, and even volunteering their time to help in weeding.
Defying the conventional wisdom that - without inorganic pesticides and herbicides - up to 60 per cent of their crops would be destroyed by weeds and 20 to 90 per cent by insects or disease, organic growers like Yoshinori and Tomoko Kaneko, of Ogawa-machi, Saitama Prefecture, rely instead on composting, crop rotation, crop diversity and hand weeding. Following a "natural" crop calendar in harmony with the seasons, they claim their losses are usually only 15 to 20 per cent - while their produce is delicious compared to its less tasty, chemically grown counterparts (a sample of their strawberries, given the author, offered physical, if strictly empirical proof of the latter!). They contend their crops become stronger and more resistant to pests when grown with compost, and that such produce stays fresher longer. By eliminating inorganic chemicals, they believe they're contributing to a less toxic environment.
These claims are disputed by some scientists, like Prof. Izuru Yamamoto, of the Department of Agricultural Chemistry, Tokyo University of Agriculture, who insists that, when used judiciously, inorganic chemical fertilizers do no more harm to the environment than would be caused by too much organic manure. Since the currently approved synthetic pesticides biodegrade rapidly when used correctly, there is negligible residue when the produce reaches market. Yamamoto cites Prof. X. Ames - discoverer of the Ames Test for carcinogenicity - to the effect that our daily pesticide intake is only 1/15 000 th of our daily intake of naturally occurring toxic substances. "This means justification of organic farming on the basis of food safety is dubious," asserts Yamamoto. But a June 1993 U.S. National Academy of Sciences' report concludes the level of pesticide residues currently permitted on crops at harvest-time in the U.S. may not be "safe" after all, especially for children (Ceres No. 147, U.S. export ban could halt dumping of dangerous toxics).
Whatever the pros and cons of the toxicity controversy, doing without chemical inputs has made Japan's organic farmers innovative. For example, members of the Yasato-machi Cooperative, in Ibaraki Prefecture, use locally bought or homemade products such as moku san (wood vinegar) and koso eki (fermented vegetable solution) to protect crops from pests, and farmer Tadashi Tomatsu of nearby Sashima-machi uses bokashi (a fermented mixture of soil, chicken manure, pressed rapeseed cake, rice bran, charcoal and boiled livestock bone) for its fertilizing value. Still others are testing crop rotation and mixed cropping schemes, while the Mokichi Okada Association (MOA), of Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture - which claims to have more than a million consumers for its "nature farming" produce - contends that heavy composting helps gradually eliminate tenacious weeds from fields, leaving only weeds that are easy to pull out by hand. The MOA is also testing the pest-control effectiveness of extracts from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica). While some organic farmers use no manufactured chemicals at all, others do so on a case-by-case basis. Can they label themselves "organic farmers?" The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) is grappling with the issue.
Willing to sacrifice
As for the perfect cucumbers or blemish-free lettuce many Japanese are supposed to prefer, they may not be as prized as mainstream marketing experts believe. A gradually increasing number of consumers appear willing to sacrifice cosmetic appearance for safety. "I don't mind insect holes in my lettuce at all," emphasized Reiko Kishio, a young Tokyo housewife who last year joined her neighborhood "delivery post" for supplies from the Miyoshi Village Cooperative, in Chiba Prefecture. "When I see a live caterpillar once in a while in my produce, it assures me that no pesticides were used on the crop," she explained, as she expertly picked out a tiny wriggling worm from between the folds of cabbage leaves while she and two other women sorted out supplies received that day for the nine members of their group. Empty cartons were being neatly stacked for reuse by farmers. "In fact, I would become very suspicious if I were to start receiving perfect-looking vegetables," Kishio added. "And I don't mind paying more for organic produce because the farmer has to work harder and because this is good for my health."
Her concern for health is typical of group members. Japan's organic farming movement dates, in fact, to the 1970s, when concern for the adverse effects of synthetic chemicals began to be voiced in books such as Sawako Ariyoshi's Complex Contamination - a work critics branded as emotional and without scientific credibility - which opposed agricultural chemicals generally. Other authors, such as Ayako Sono and Akiyoshi Nozaka adopted a more moderate view, recognizing a limited role for chemicals in agriculture.
The contribution of inorganic fertilizers and chemical pesticides to Japan's agricultural development can't be denied, and the country's success in producing food helped it recover from the ravages of the Second World War. Today, Japanese agriculture is among the world's most productive. However, this also places Japan among the heaviest users of synthetic chemicals. For example, Japan's pesticide use currently averages 8.1 kilograms of active ingredients per hectare, compared to 2.4 kg/ha in the U.S. Actually both countries post similar figures for fruits and vegetables (Japan 24 kg/ha, U.S. 26 kg/ha on fruits and Japan 12 kg/ha, U.S. 17 kg/ha on vegetables), but the large area in the U.S. under such crops as wheat and soybean, which require less pesticide, helps lower the national average there.
And with an average fertilizer use exceeding 500 kg of nutrients per hectare, some studies suggest that Japanese farmers may be over-fertilizing by 30 to 50 per cent. Since fertilizer inputs are only a fraction of total production cost, farmers tend to apply too much, rather than take the chance of under-fertilizing. Pesticide costs are also a relatively small part of total costs, but Prof. Yamamoto points out that the highly regulated nature of pesticide use in Japan minimizes the chances of overuse having adverse effects on the environment.
Some instances of health problems have nevertheless been linked to pesticide use, according to Prof. Koa Tasaka of the International Christian University, in Tokyo. For instance in 1969, in Nagano Prefecture Prof. Tetsu Ishikawa linked cases of eyesight problems (short-sightedness, narrow-sightedness, and decreased activity of the enzymes responsible for nerve impulse transmission), especially among schoolchildren, to the heavy use of organophosphates. Yamamoto counters that the Nagano Prefecture Educational Committee conducted a survey of its own after Ishikawa's report, and did not find the same correlation. "The problem," Yamamoto adds, "is with individual pesticides and one should not generalize. Whenever any problem is found with pesticide, it is immediately tackled by the MAFF, Environmental Agency, and the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MHW). For example, when BHC residues were found in mother's milk, cow's milk and meat in 1971, the government banned BHC use. But there was no action on Ishikawa's study."
More recently, Prof. Masaharu Yamamoto (no relation to Izuru Yamamoto), of Niigata University Medical School, has observed a correlation between the use of herbicide CNP (chloronitrophen) and deaths due to tanno gan (cancer of the bladder) over the period 1984-1993 in Niigata, Japan's leading rice-producing area. But he cautions that his is currently only a working hypothesis, based on epidemiological studies. And while such an approach may provide a statistical association, it doesn't supply evidence for a direct causal relation. "If results of these investigations confirm a causal relationship, the government will undoubtedly take suitable action," said Izuru Yamamoto.
Residues in imports
Concern about pesticide contamination extends to residues in imported foodgrain, according to consumer activist Mikako Iba. Recently, a consumers' coalition filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Health and Welfare for raising the acceptable level of pesticide residues in imported foodgrain as part of a "Pesticides Residue Harmonization" scheme aimed at appeasing foreign governments - chiefly the U.S. - which consider Japan's strict laws a non-tariff barrier to free trade (see book review of The new protectionism, page 46). The level of chloropropham (growth regulator) residue permitted on potatoes, for example, has been raised from 0.2 parts per million (ppm) to 50 ppm; of bromide residue on soya, from 50 to 180 ppm; and of sumithion and malathion (insecticides) residue on wheat from 0.2 and 0.1 ppm to 10 and 8 ppm, respectively, according to consumer coalition lawyer Michiko Kamiyama. While these more permissive levels put Japanese regulations at par with international standards, consumers counter that the fact that Japan has had fewer cases of pesticide poisoning is mainly because its standards have been higher. Activists insist the amount of "poison" permitted in the environment should be a sovereign issue, and that people's health should not be sacrificed to appease other governments. The matter is pending in the courts, Kamiyama added.
Izuru Yamamoto explained that the internationally accepted concept is that where pesticide use is below "acceptable daily intake" (ADI), there should be no health problem. "The (coalition's) lawsuit challenges international expert opinion, is based on emotions, and lacks scientific basis," he added. "Formerly, there was almost no regulation on pesticide residues in imported foods, particularly for pesticides not registered in Japan. Now the law has been changed in the light of contemporary needs." He felt ADI probably is a "sovereignty issue," but not the residue level in each item. This point, however, can also be disputed, because recent studies suggest different human populations have differing levels of tolerance to various chemicals - as do adults and children within a population, including children still in the womb. Some argue the differences are small and within the usual "safety factor." The recent National Academy of Sciences' findings mentioned above, however, suggest vulnerability may cut across race, gender and age groups.
Organic market patterns
An idea of the national market for organic foods can be gleaned from looking at metropolitan Tokyo, where roughly 150 000 to 200 000 households - half a million to one million people - regularly eat "organic" produce (vegetables, fruit, rice, dairy and poultry products) grown without, or with "reduced use" of inorganic chemicals. Some schools and restaurants have also switched over to organic food, and at least one sake brewery claims to use only organically grown rice in its premium brand. The total number of organic food consumers throughout Japan may be three to five million (about three to five per cent of the population).
Three patterns of distribution are evident:
1) the tekei system of close farmer/consumer cooperation - Spearheaded by the 4 000 member-strong Nippon Yuki Nogyo Kenkyukai (Japan Organic Agriculture Association - JOAA) and born in 1971, this co-partnership requires farmers to forgo using any synthetic chemicals, and consumers to buy whatever the farmers produce, although the harvest may be more than needed in some seasons, and less in others. Consumers also visit farms periodically to help with weeding, and share in the purchase of capital items such as delivery vans, slaughterhouses, and cold storage facilities. Although some features may be duplicated elsewhere, the overall tekei system seems unique to Japan;
2) the post delivery system - Many consumers rely on distributors who bring produce to the house or to a pre-designated "post," usually serving three to 20 households. Some systems have evolved into multi-billion yen operations, receiving produce from 1 000 to 3 000-plus contract farmers spread throughout the country and distributing it to 10 000 to 35 000 households weekly. The largest such group, Seikatsu Club, founded by a Japanese housewife 20 years ago to get safe milk directly from farmers, claims to have more than 214 000 members;
3) organic food retail outlets - Approximately 150 retail outlets selling organic foods have appeared in recent years in the Tokyo megalopolis, catering to consumers who do not belong to established groups.
In the past, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and Japan's agricultural research institutes paid little attention to organic farming, considering the task at hand to be to increase food production and food self-sufficiency. "The ministry considered organic farming to be a passing phase only and did not support any research in this area," complained JOAA secretary-general Tomoyoshi Kiuchi. Now that organic farming is making a dent, however, the ministry has issued guidelines describing farming practices necessary for a grower to label produce "organic." Designed primarily to protect consumers from false advertising, the guidelines have drawn complaints from the JOAA and consumer groups, who say the fact that they permit use of such labels as "reduced fertilizer" or "reduced pesticides" only confuses the buying public. The word "organic," say the groups, should be reserved exclusively for crops on which no chemicals have been used.
To date, Okayama is the only prefecture to endorse organic farming, as well as put a streamlined procedure in place for certifying produce as "organic," according to the Okayama Division of Agricultural and Horticultural Production. A red label is given to produce on which no chemical has been applied; a blue label to produce on which growers have used natural pyrethrum, nicotine, machine oil, sulphur compounds or the microbial control agent BT (Bacillus thuringiensis). To be certified, farmers must not use any other chemical, whether fertilizer or herbicide. Yamamoto, however, sees no rationale in permitting use of some pesticides, contending there is no difference between "natural" pyrethrum and synthetic pyrethroids in their mode of action, level of toxicity or the perceived harm to the ecosystem. Nicotine can also be very toxic if improperly used.
While scientific debate continues, the powerful JA-Zenchu (Zenkoku Nogyokyodokumiai Chuokai), the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives representing 80 per cent of Japan's farmers through its 5.5 million regular members and three million associate members, has also started paying attention to organic farming. Summarizing results of their 1990 survey of 3 500 primary societies, Kazuo Tsukada, manager of the internal section, said 2 000 societies had indicated that some farmers in their areas practised organic farming, though the extent of practice was unknown. Tsukada felt support for organic farming was within JA-Zenchu's basic policy of providing adequate, safe food to consumers and supporting sustainable agriculture. "While previously adequate food supply was the overarching consideration, issues of sustainability now warrant that all means of providing safe food be considered," he said.
A serious demographic problem for Japanese agriculture - as in many industrialized nations - is that farmers are aging, and their children are moving to urban centres in search of "easier living." The popularity of the organic life-style may help counterbalance this tendency, as the quest for living in harmony with nature prompts out-migration from cities of a new breed who dislike the "concrete jungle." Under apprenticeship programs operated by organic growers such as Yoshinori and Tomoko Kaneko and Tadashi Tomatsu, scores of young men and women are learning the joys, sweat and tears of farming - and starting their own farms and consumer group alliances.
Japanese organic farming has evolved from a fad to a life-style for some farmers and consumers. And while problems of scientific validity, definitions, safety, effectiveness, desired levels of production and consumer education remain, Japan's successful experience is instructive. Though the overall tekei system may be culture-specific, some aspects could be tried in many countries. The issues involved in organic growing should be weighed objectively, sifting fact from fancy, to find ways to improve safety and sustainability without sacrificing yield and quality.
Currently, organic farming is helping to meet the food needs of one to three per cent of Japan's population. Could it become a major crop production strategy, and an example for developing countries? To find out, research should concentrate on:
a) evaluating pest-control products on the basis of economic protection of target crops, rather than effective kill of target pests;
b) assessing the extent of crop losses under organic regimes;
c) evaluating the effectiveness of bio- or organic pest-control methods, such as employment of moku san, koso eki, and neem extracts, as well as the fertilizing value of such substances as bokashi;
d) assessing the pest-control effectiveness of different crop rotations and cropping patterns;
e) evaluating the use of composting to eliminate weeds.
The Japanese and other governments should also consider policies to facilitate larger-scale use of such botanical products as neem extracts. Many countries presently prohibit their use because the exact composition and concentration of their active ingredients can't be guaranteed. Yet, neither can any farmer guarantee that apples from two adjacent trees will be equally sweet. As long as materials are safe and farmers are willing to experiment with them, they should be encouraged to do so. The Indian government's bold initiative relaxing rules for the registration and use of neem formulations for pest control should be applauded.
Such extracts could be the basis for the next generation of safe pest-control Substances. Yet in many developing countries where government policy promotes use of "modem" inorganic chemicals to meet production targets, surveys reveal that use of traditional materials such as compost or neem extracts are seen as "backward practices" by the more affluent farmers and decision-makers. With Japan's organic growers obtaining higher yields than many developing country farmers produce with chemicals, the country's experience could be a valuable signpost.