Witnessing the birth of a new concept “Community Supported Trade” (Mai Kobayashi and Maximilian Spiegelberg, Project Researchers)

FEAST HQ Report, WG3

We spent the weekend of March 3rd and 4th at the 『百姓一喜』(Hyakusho-ikki). The title for this event can be translated as the peasant revolution, but they used the character for “happiness(喜)”, rather than “riot(揆),” which had the same pronunciation. It was a second gathering of its kind that took place in Nantan, Kyoto. The event by the same name that took place one year ago was what created the group that calls itself Kyoto Organic Action (KOA), the core members of this group was the organizers for this event.

Having decided relatively late to join the event, we are grateful for the organizer for taking us in, despite there being more than 130 requests for participation already (a lot more than they were expecting). The event gave us a lot of insights into and material to think about the challenges facing alternative food systems in the Kyoto area. We were also happy to see that many of the participants were interested in the work we do in our project.

An introduction to the issue of getting food to the mostly urban consumers started with our driving from Sakyoku to Nantan with the car. Most of the travel time was used just getting through Kyoto City traffic. Once out of the city, it was just another 20-30 minutes, mostly on the highway.

The aim of the gathering was to get as many organic producers, distributors and sellers within the greater Kyoto area at the table as possible, to collaborate more and to streamline the efforts jointly in what they termed a Community Supported Trade (or Transportation) scheme. The birth of a brand-new concept! It is important to note that they define the term “organic” not to exclude people who opt to use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers or include only those who formally or informally abide by the Organic JAS, or the Japanese Agricultural Standard for organic agricultural products. For now, it is used as in the definition of organic by IFOAM, more as an inclusive term to describe a network of people whose ultimate goal is to work towards a culture that “sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people,[…] [promoting] fair relationships and good quality of life for all involved”.

Such an initiative was many years in the making, with many different roads leading to it. However, one strong motivating factor that added to its urgency was the recent increase in mail delivery service cost. Many smaller vegetable producers and sellers in Kyoto, and throughout Japan, had long depended on the convenient door to door postal service. With the recent price hike for mail delivery, due in large part to the explosive increase in internet shopping, it made small scale collecting and distributing of produce too expensive to sustain for small scale producers and distributors. For smaller scale producers, the lower profit margin in the locally available distribution systems has always been an issue. In particular, they explained how the direct sales schemes, such as the Michi-no-eki, also pose a problem for those who have a greater dependence on the income they can get through selling vegetables, who are outcompeted by the retired hobby farmers who have their pension fund to fall back on. Also, for vegetable producers who cannot, or choose not to take part in the standards and distribution channels dictated by the JA (Japan Agricultural Cooperatives), it took a lot of time to work around many different smaller shipments for the different buyers. The KOA scheme could theoretically streamline small scale buying and selling of produce.

On the first day, about 110 participants followed the call for a happy revolution, so to speak, and despite the organizers name being ‘Kyoto’ Organic Action, there were participants from Nara, Shiga, Hyogo, Fukui, Osaka and Mie prefectures. This showed how it was the potential of this network that people were interested in, rather than any administrative boundaries, or competing with one another in the same sector. While the long-term goal is in the establishment of a locally coordinated community supported trade system throughout Japan, the idea is to establish its first prototype within Kyoto prefecture.

As such, many of Kyoto’s prominent local vegetable sellers were present. The main instigators who first came up with the idea, however, were Mr. Kentaro Suzuki from Miroku Store and Mr. Akiyasu Ihara from Asuka Organic Farm. They realized they shared a similar vision, and with that vision, approached Mr. Kunihiko Ono from the local vegetable distribution company, Saka-no-Tochu, and Mr. Kunihiko Murayama from Iga Vegetable Farm who got on board. Mr. Rokuro Hiromi from Mumokuteki Company was also a core member. These were the people who were leading the discussion throughout the two-day event. The idea of KOA during the first year had, in this way, revolved around vegetable vender business owners. For this reason, their intention was to actively involve more vegetable produces for the upcoming year. As such, influential organic farmers such as Mr. Osamu Umemoto from Kyotango, and Mr. Junichiro Takada from Otofukubatake, Ohara, Kyoto among many others. The first day was dedicated to issues surrounding the production side of this alternative system. We were placed into groups of around 10 people to discuss the true nature of the challenges farmers are currently facing. Some of the points the participants came up with included the overall aging of farmers, inefficient land use, the purpose of defining organic, identifying customer demand, as well as the poor health conditions of the very people who are supposed to be providing people with the foundations of a healthy diet. Other notable participants in the overall event included representatives from the almost half century old environmental non-profit in Kyoto, Tsukaisute-jidai-wo-kangaeru-kai (Association for Ethical Waste and Disposable Awareness), and representative from the large Kyoto natural food’s supermarket HELP. Individuals who are involved in creating “marché” style market spaces in collaboration with large institutions, such as in department stores were also there.

For the second day, the organizers of KOA reported on their activities from the past year. Thus far, they have set up four vegetable produce collection & pickup hubs throughout Kyoto prefecture (specifically in Tango, Ayabe, Fukuchiyama and Wachi). They received some start up grant from Kyoto Prefecture to initiate the development of this transport system, as well as funding from MAFF to develop an online interface that will allow producers and buyers to have basic communication around supply and demand. Though rudimentary (consisting of an online spreadsheet where farmers can input what they are growing, the amount they can sell, and their price) they have already initiated experimental veggie collection runs.

The KOA organizers’ challenges varied from the earlier mentioned producer’s challenges. One was how to get a KOA transport truck, given the restrictive rules of the municipal government fund, and the inevitably fluctuating volume of goods. Second was the challenges surrounding the current practice of full transparency among all the participants in the product registration procedure. While it was intended to increase coordination among the producers leading to niche development and diversification, rather than competition, it did expose too much for some and lead likely to underbidding. A brought forward point was for example, that registering the carrots for 250 yen in the database by farmer A, made it difficult for farmer B to offer theirs at 300 yen. Another challenge remains to optimize the cost of transport. One idea was to establish a shared transport network where other company trucks that may be already traveling with half a load to and from the Kyoto city center will be utilized. It could be imagined like an uber transport network for food produce around an app, maybe a typical share economy style startup. As this network increases, the system will have to accommodate producers and sellers of all scales, from those growing a few rows of vegetables in their backyards to those growing peppers by the tones; from sellers who deliver 20 vegetable box sets, to larger shops in Kyoto like the HELP supermarket. Refining of this system and its economic viability will be done in the months to come with expanded participation from all actors within the local food chain.

According to its core members, the next steps for the KOA is to make this movement into an official organization. They will also be working to establish an app to streamline communication between all the associated members, ultimately linking up with the FarmO website. It is currently being developed by Saka-no-tochu with the aim to connect all organic farmers in Japan under one interface.

As FEAST, we are excited to engage with and further discussions around the concept of Community Supported Trade (or Transportation) and to explore the new opportunities and relationships such a concept can bring forth. How will their initiative to streamline and coordinate efforts be different from the existing networks revolving around the wholesale market, the JA and co-ops specializing in the sales of natural food? How can we learn from similar initiatives around the world, such as food hubs and food networks, and make it relevant to the Kyoto context? How can their initiative expand the sphere of influence beyond the like-minded conscious consumers? How could this initiative be a part of a truly alternative path towards the (re)installment or the retaining of food sovereignty for the farmers and consumers, that favors humane and ecologically regenerative ways of food production and consumption as envisioned within the agroecology movement?

We look forward to engaging and being a part of the dynamics around this revolution in the following years.

(Photo: KOA)