Sunday, July 9, 2017

Of Rice and Men

"Fast rather than slow, more rather than less -- this flashy 'development' is linked directly to society's impending collapse. It has only served to separate man from nature."

Japanese author and farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka, wrote these telling words in his 1979 treatise, The One Straw Revolution. For many of us striving to reconcile humanity's rather large footprint on the planet, this manifesto provided a glimmer of hope for both society and ecology. Yet, rereading this prescient prose, I am struck not only by the relevance of this warning nearly forty years later, but by how pressing is the need to shift our current paradigm.

While I could point my finger to numerous places on a map that have embraced this separation from nature, we need not venture beyond Fukuoka's homeland. On a recent trip to Japan, I was struck by a tension - simultaneously, a deep rooted appreciation and ceremony around food and the environment, and a tendency toward fast, flashy, and facile. Japan is admittedly a leader in thinking around sustainable development pathways. They have hosted momentous climate change summits, yielding the Kyoto protocol in 1997, and supported biodiversity conservation, facilitating the establishment of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in 2010. But I'll focus on two aspects of food that that seem to plague many highly developed countries (with a distinctly Japanese flavour): the distancing of people from agriculture and 'the land', and the shifting nature of diet.

As in much of the world these days, the farming population in Japan has fallen precipitously in the last half century (under 2 million in 2016). Recently, the fallout from the nuclear reactor at Fukishima has forced farmers to confront the long lasting consequences from radioactive contamination of crop land, and give up farming as well. Yet, the Japanese government has put in place policies to protect farmers and domestic production, heavily subsidizing rice growers and taxing imports. Interestingly, these policies have resulted in much rice-producing land lying fallow (40% of rice paddy terraces, in fact), in turn providing marshy habitat for migratory birds. These relics are a demonstration of the fine balance farmers had to strike between nature and needs of people, landscapes referred to as Satoyama. Even with these shifts, the relationship between people and land cuts to deeper shifts in lifestyles and livelihoods.

During a walk through the arches and woodlands of the Fushimi Inari temple outside of Kyoto, I got to talking with a gentleman* taking his late afternoon stroll. The pervasive (if subtle) influence of the indigenous Shintoism instill a particular life and spiritual meaning to natural elements, and stress living in harmony with nature. My impromptu walking companion spoke of the fox, the guardian at the temple, who traditionally protected the rice crop and helped ensure it could sustain the local population. As in most parts of Asia, the predominant land use and occupation until recently was agriculture, specifically rice paddy. Yet as this has shifted, the association with the health of the land and wellbeing has faded, with guardians rather now attended to for business success and prosperity. 

Despite its majestic natural beauty and verdant hills, Japan is also known for its urbanisation - in 2015, nearly 94% of the population lived in cities. You can imagine why. Japan is not a big country...the island nation is a mere 378,000 square kilometres with 127 million people (that's like adding all the people in Poland to Germany). Further, the landscape itself seems to promote separation. Take Tokyo and Kobe, where 45% of Japan's population squeeze into 17% of the land area. Food has had to adapt to these conditions. While we are all familiar with sushi, miso soup, udon noodles, and the like, the ubiquity of packaged and convenience foods astounded me. Food is not cheap, and fresh produce costs dearly. This is not unique to Japanese cities, but perhaps the overwhelming number of people living in urban areas (and growing reliance on imports) probably is not helping to counteract the trend.

Going back to Fukuoka, his vision is worrisome in our modern world. We need to fight more against this tide of my last post I wrote about plastics. While there are some common goods that will require lobbying for government action, there are meaningful impacts that can result from our own decisions in the way we 'consume', being more conscious and deliberate about those 'development paths' we overtly or implicitly support.

* I lost the man on the way back to the main temple, so I never managed to thank him for the company and the insights. Hopefully, he knows how much I appreciated it. 

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