‘Food Sustainability’ – Small Communities


Apart from farming organically, another problem we touched on during our meals was Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). GMOs have not penetrated Japan’s market significantly, but that is changing. They shared that the government has changed the law such that the regional governments will no longer have to keep a local seed bank, which is highly problematic. The local, non-GMO seeds are highly precious as they are a huge part of Japan’s history and culture – with food being such a vital part of our everyday lives, and are especially precious to organic farmers who are trying to preserve this food culture.

A part of Japanese culture which I really admire is the sentiment of もったいない (mottainai), which means ‘what a waste’ (I will expand on this in another post). People in the past, and some people now still carry this value and make sure that nothing is wasted during their cooking/consumption process, down to the last drop of soup. However, with food becoming more available in the market, there is an increasing invisible yet very problematic issue, which is cosmetic filtering. While the sentiment of ‘mottainai’ exists, it is increasingly eroded by the power of the capitalist market and the strive of Japanese companies to become perfect. This means that the external appearance of food sold in Japan is taken into careful consideration when it is packaged by the farmers and companies – both producers and consumers only want to see excellent produce on the shelves. This hits organic farmers especially hard as their produce will rarely be perfect. Working at the organic farm, we see how many perfect vegetables are rejected every single day and kept for ourselves/neighbours just because they don’t have a perfect appearance. Even if these organic vegetables taste way better than everything else, consumers have no way to know, and only judge them by their appearances and/or price. The sad truth is that the vegetables we always see are laden with chemical fertilisers/pesticides which makes them look perfect, while organic produce looks (and tastes) the way it is supposed to be – slightly misshapen.

One of the moments that we thought was truly ‘mottainai’ was when we went for a short hike at a nearby mountain on our day off, and we saw so so many plum and mikan trees, full and ripe. But as we didn’t know whether they belonged to someone, we only took one mikan and a few plums with us (which was so fun!). When we got back home, we found out that those trees didn’t belong to anyone and were usually abandoned because those mikans can’t sell in the market (they’re not sweet/large enough), even though they taste perfectly fine. We were really baffled, but then we visited a supermarket in Kyoto in the next few days and we understood – those mikan wouldn’t stand a chance beside these beautiful ones sitting in the supermarket. What are consumers demanding from farmers, and is it worth all these chemicals and waste?

One of Coco’s beautiful pictures of the mikan trees!

However, one of the organic farmers’ more informed customers really inspired us. She leaves her own bags with the farmers and comes over occasionally to buy ugly vegetables and leave another one of her bags behind. She is truly an exemplary of sustainable living – she brings her own bag (no packaging waste!) and buys ugly fruits and vegetables that the farmers don’t usually sell. The farmers are thankful for her and hope that more consumers can be like her.

With so many problems with food production: what exactly is the solution? The farmers think that the best solution to these issues is to create 地域社会 (chiiki shakai): small, tight-knit communities all over Japan, where people can come together in a sharing economy. Even though they are subsistence farmers, they acknowledged that it is impossible for them to live alone. They often rely on the supermarket to buy other essentials, but another alternative is to just share. For instance, neighbour A makes X type of veggies and grains, and neighbour B makes Y type of veggies and fruits, and neighbour C runs an egg/poultry farm. If they all share a little bit of what they make with each other, they would have enough for an entire meal. Doing this allows for the building and strengthening of relationships, and the circulation of surplus food, which reduces food waste. We have observed this at all three farms we visited, where neighbours will randomly show up at each others’ houses and gift each other whatever they’ve made and would like to share. With the farms we visited being pioneers in their respective fields, they also often give advice to their neighbours and provide them with the resources they need, creating small and strong communities.

We did not only hear this from Yuuji-san and Masako-san, but rather everyone we talked to mentioned the concept at one point (even without us prompting). We talked to another organic farmer from Tokushima, the founders of Food Bank Kyoto and the farmer from the poultry/egg farm in Kaga, Ishikawa, and they all mentioned the small communities concept, even though they are all from very different parts of Japan. The most common response we got was “ahh, too bad that Singapore doesn’t have 田舎 inaka (countrysides)”.

They mentioned that with this concept, not only is it easier to live sustainably, it also promotes physical (keeping fit with farming – the Ono farm farmers are 60 and still really fit: in fact, they’re 3 times our age and work 3 times as fast!) and mental health (as you maintain your relationships with others and build a supportive community). And it seems that every little town/village we’ve visited practices this.

My question now would be: can cities and larger communities also create such “small communities”, and if so, how? How do we provide platforms for trust building and the support of such communities in our scattered and dense cityscapes?