I recently had the opportunity to interview Masahiko Yamada, formerly Japan´s Minister of Agriculture and now one of the country´s foremost food sovereignty activists. We met at an international Economics of Happiness Conference in Prato, Italy, where Yamada delivered a keynote speech about the birth of a new citizens’ movement to protect Japan´s food-crop heritage from corporate take-over.
Keen to learn more, I ask Yamada for an interview before he departs Italy. With only an hour to spare, we rush off to find a caffetteria with a spare table. Joining us as translator is Keibo Oiwa, author of Slow is Beautiful: Culture as Slowness, the book that inspired the Slow Living movement in Japan. Over a strong cup of Italian coffee, Mr. Yamada responds to my many questions.
From traditional farming to post-war industrialization
Yamada tells me he was born on a farm in Japan’s countryside during the Second World War. At the time, Japanese farmers practiced mixed farming – the growing of crops combined with the raising of livestock, for the added benefit of both.
“Everybody in the countryside owned a few pigs and a cow or two, and grew several arable crops. The main cereals – rice, wheat and soya – were alternated on the fields throughout the year. Rice and wheat would be followed by the nitrogen-fixing soya. This was our traditional way of farming,” says Yamada.
However, this started to change after the American post-war occupation of Japan and the extensive restructuring that followed. On the one hand, conditions improved for many farmers, as land reform redistributed agricultural land from absentee landlords, via forced sales to the government, to tenant farmers who worked the land and paid a proportion of their crops in rent. To avoid a return to the concentration of land in a few hands, the government limited farm size per household to what a family could farm without outside labor – approximately 1-4 ha (2.5-10 acres) depending on the region. The reform resulted in better conditions for Japanese farmers and a legally protected landscape of small family farms that remains today.
At the same time, the US occupation – amounting to several hundred thousand soldiers – led to a rapid process of industrialization, along with the emulation of the American lifestyle, including food habits. This meant a shift away from the traditional diet of rice, fish, vegetables and soya-products, towards a diet rich in meat and oils. Over a fifty-year period (1955-2005), the consumption of meat increased nine-fold and oil consumption rose five-fold; meanwhile the consumption of rice fell by half. “Americanization” also led to the rapid adoption of “modern farming” – large-scale specialized and industrialized agriculture – and a growing dependence on imported foods.
From farmer to visionary politician
As a young adult, Yamada followed the new trend of specialization and became a monocultural pork producer, with 5,000 pigs. Things went well at first, he says, but his business, like that of many other “modern” Japanese farmers, failed during the 1970s oil crisis. By then, Japanese agriculture was heavily tied to a volatile global fossil-fuel based economy. The oil embargo of 1973-74 led to a rapid rise in the cost of animal feed, coupled with a drop in the price of meat, as consumers tightened their purses during the crisis. Like many Japanese farmers at the time, Yamada was caught in a fatal squeeze between high costs for inputs and low prices for his production. He tried shifting to retailing, with a butcher business, but still could not survive economically.
Yamada’s hands-on experience as a modern farmer in a volatile global economy led him to question the way agriculture was changing, and to appreciate the value of Japan´s traditional small-scale diverse farms that operated without dependence on expensive inputs or big bank loans. He became convinced that the way forward was to strengthen and improve Japan´s diversified and integrated farming culture, including its many family farms, rather than pursuing further industrialization and specialization.
He took a drastic step and re-schooled as a lawyer. Later on, he entered politics and was elected to the House of Representatives in 2003. Six years later he became Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), and was officially appointed Minister of MAFF in 2010.
As Minister, one of the first things he did was to publically declare: “The highly industrialized agricultural model has been a mistake and a failure…we need to strengthen small scale, family-based agriculture instead”.
Yamada took immediate steps to act on this belief by instituting a guaranteed minimum income for farming families. As is true in most places today, decades of low farm incomes had led young people to shy away from a life on the land, leaving the old to farm alone. The average age of farmers had by then reached 65 (it’s now 67), while the number of people engaged in farming had dropped from a steady 14 million people between 1870-1960, to a mere 2.2 million farmers by 2015. Not only that, two-thirds of these relied on secondary jobs and pensions to make ends meet.
The guarantee of a basic income had the desired effect: a marked increase in the number of young people engaged in farming. It had suddenly become possible for younger generations to return to their family farms without risking everything.
Out in the cold
Yamada´s agricultural vision – a more localized model based on diversified family farms – was not in line with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government, led by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. This was not the only thing they differed on. Yamada was also highly critical of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – the “free trade” agreement that the Japanese government was seeking to join at the time. As Agriculture Minister, Yamada warned that the TPP would undermine Japan´s food sovereignty and further squeeze small farmers. Not surprisingly, Yamada was pushed out of office at the end of 2011, after only two years as Minister.
I ask Yamada what happened to the guaranteed basic income after he left office. He gives me a small smile and says, “It was abolished, or rather phased out, ending in 2018…But there is good news: the main opposition party [the Constitutional Democrat Party] plans to bring it back this year. The guaranteed minimum income for farming families is their number one goal”.
Japan’s crop seed heritage under threat
Yamada is one of those people who doesn’t give up. With his background in farming, law and politics, he was the perfect person to kick-start a bottom-up citizen-led movement to protect Japanese crop seed production. This had come under threat when the Japanese government moved in 2013 to abolish the Main Crop Seeds Law – a 67-year-old law protecting native seed production. According to Yamada, this move (along with other deregulatory steps), was an “admission fee” for joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a goodwill gesture to lobbyists for transnational agribusinesses.
The Main Crop Seeds Law, created in 1952, requires each of Japan’s 47 prefectures to maintain good quality seeds of the main staple crops: soya, rice, wheat, barley and oats. To this end, the prefectures run agricultural experimental stations that reproduce a wide range of varieties adapted to different locations and growing conditions. The agricultural stations, supported by the federal government, have for the past seven decades sold locally adapted high-quality open-pollinated seeds at an affordable price. The law is an example of visionary policy-making: it recognizes a key fundament of the long-term health of any society – its ability to feed itself. For that purpose, there is hardly anything more important than maintaining the production of native crop-seeds, rather than relying on a narrow range of commercial one-size-fits-all seeds.
On April 1, 2018, the Main Crop Seeds Law was revoked. The abolition went hand in hand with a recently enacted “Agricultural Competitiveness Strengthening and Support Law”, which mandates the “sharing” of information on seed production – or more accurately, the no-cost transfer of know-how from public-sector institutions to the private sector. This essentially amounts to the expropriation of an intellectual commons for the benefit of private, for-profit interests. The opposite situation would have been considered an infringement of agribusinesses’ intellectual property rights.
Farmers, food cooperatives, NGOs and other citizens’ groups are extremely worried about the consequences for farmers and for the country’s food security. With the seed protection law gone, many experimental stations will likely cease to exist, as will support for the production of native seeds, something that will hit the country´s small producers particularly hard. Meanwhile, transnational seed giants are waiting to take over seed production and marketing. In all likelihood, farmers will come to depend on big agribusiness for their seeds. As the corporate-commercial seeds tend to be hybrids (i.e. their attributes are not passed on to the next generation and many are designed to be sterile), farmers will have no choice but to buy new seeds year after year.
Yamada’s greatest concern, though, is for Japan´s rich seed diversity – in particular its chief crop, rice, which has been grown in Japan for over 2,500 years. There are over 300 varieties that vary in terms of taste, fragrance, and texture, and in their adaptability to the wide range of bio-climatic conditions that exist in Japan.
While local seed production inevitably leads to high diversity, seed production at the hands of a few transnational agribusinesses leads to the polar opposite – a small range of commercial breeds. Japan therefore is at risk of losing its crop diversity for good.
This is a very real threat. According to FAO, 75% of crop seeds disappeared between 1900 and 2000. In the US, where agribusiness and large-scale specialized farms have long dominated, the loss is estimated at 93% in only 80 years.
After the recent-mega mergers of the world´s largest agricultural agribusinesses, only three conglomerates now control half of all seed sales in the world: DowDuPont, Bayer-Monsanto, and Syngenta-ChemChina, which will mean a further decrease in seed diversity. The biggest revenue source for these companies, however, is not from the sale of seeds but from the agricultural chemicals that go with them. As investigative journalist Mark Schapiro puts it, “The combination of chemical and seed companies is giving rise to seeds that are born addicted to chemicals for their survival – entire generations full of crack-baby seeds.”
Yamada tells me that after he was pushed out of government, he joined forces with an impressive group of 150 lawyers that has challenged as unconstitutional both the TPP agreement and the government’s decision to abolish the seed protection law. Challenging the TPP in court is a hefty job. Like all “free trade” treaties, the written agreements are over-complicated and designed to confuse. Yamada explains that the 30 chapters of the most recent version of the TPP agreement contain more than 8,000 pages. When asked about the outcome of the court case, he says:
“First we took them to the local court and then to the national court. We lost both times. But the court did acknowledge that the TPP is behind the abolishing of the Main Crop Seeds Law. We are not giving up: we are now taking the case to the Supreme Court, as TPP violates articles 25 and 13 of our constitution. It is not only our seeds that are at risk, but our water, which is now in the process of being privatized and sold to foreign companies.”
Yamada is employing a two-prong strategy. Along with the fight at the very top of the legal system, he is mobilizing a grassroots movement to initiate change from the bottom. For a year he has traveled across the country, from one small rural town to the next, to encourage and organize local and regional groups to resist the transnationals and to pressure local government (on a prefecture level) to issue ordinances that protect Japan’s native seeds, in the absence of adequate national laws.
In Japan, any citizen may submit a suggestion to their local government. By law, the local government is obliged to discuss and consider suggestions submitted to them by citizens. Thanks to this direct democracy practice, it has been possible for individuals and groups to propose local laws to protect their seeds.
The bottom-up strategy has been hugely successful. In less than a year, hundreds of requests have been sent to local governments across the country. Three prefectures (Niigata, Hyogo and Saitama) have now passed seed-protection laws, while Nagano, Toyama, Hokkaido and Yamagata – prefectures with large farming communities – are in the process of doing the same. Reports from across the country indicate that another twelve will follow suit before long. Yamada´s aim is for all 47 prefectures to take legal protective action.
In support of the campaign, a broad “Coalition to Protect Japanese Seeds” has been formed by food coops, citizens’ groups, NGOs and farmers. The national Agricultural Association, which previously supported the Liberal Democrat Party´s free trade policies, has now joined the campaign to protect Japan´s seed heritage.
Is water next?
Yamada points out that it is not only agriculture and seeds that are threatened under the “free trade” agenda: water is the next “commons” in line to be privatized and commercialized. Until recently, water in Japan was managed by the prefectures, but both the TPP and the revised CCTPP agreement are opening up the privatization of water on a massive scale.
In July 2018, a new law allowing water privatization was passed in the lower house of Parliament. Whether it will pass the upper house remains to be seen, but the present government has been urging cities to privatize their water-works for some time, to avoid the fiscal burden of replacing aging water and sewage systems.
The transfer of water rights into the hands of foreign corporations, Yamada believes, is a short-sighted solution to the limitations of the public purse. Citizens, local businesses and even public institutions will henceforth have to pay more for their water, in order to provide distant share-holders with a steady profit in a speculative market.
The Asian Development Bank is already helping to privatize water in many Japanese cities. So far Matsuyama City has sold its water to a French company. “Water is now five times more expensive,” Yamada tells me. “Before, poor people could get water in the public parks, but even that has now become illegal”.
Yamada is ready to kickstart another citizen’s movement to protect water, using the same bottom-up strategy as the one being used to protect Japan´s seeds. “If we can do this here, then it can be done in other countries as well,” Yamada concludes, before he rushes off to his next destination.
Japan´s situation is not unique: the corporatization of the commons is happening everywhere, as the result of heavy corporate lobbying and the direct involvement of big business in the drafting of trade treaties. The TPP is a good example of this skewed process: 600 official corporate “trade advisors” took part in closed-door negotiations from the very beginning, while civil society was left to depend on leaked documents for information. Yet, most governments are willing participants in this rigged “trade game” as part of an endless quest for further economic growth.
Despite the limitations of a finite planet, there is still an almost-religious belief in the growth model, both as a recipe for “economic health” and as a broad-spectrum cure for all ailments, from poverty to climate change. So far, the results have been the opposite – an economy that primarily benefits the 1% and environmental breakdown on all levels, including soaring CO2 emissions.
The privatization of the commons is part of the same story. Clearly, the biggest beneficiaries aren´t people or even nation-states, but global business enterprises and their shareholders.
It’s time for us to wake up and practice direct democracy – to join with others to stop further corporatization and regain control over our commons, our communities, our cultures and our economies. Because if we don´t, who will? Masahiko Yamada and the new citizens’ movement in Japan have come up with a few tricks we can learn from.
Correction: an earlier version of this essay said that Chapter 30 of the TPP contains 8,000 pages. This has been corrected to say that the 30 chapters of the most recent version of the TPP contain more than 8,000 pages.
Image credit: Climate Action
 Yutaka, Harada, Japan’s Agriculture and the TPP, The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, November 21, 2013; “Japan’s Farming Population Rapidly Aging and Decreasing”, Nippon.com, July 3, 2018; Kasahara, Shigehisa, “The Role of Agriculture in the Early Phase of Industrialization: Policy implications of Japan’s experience“, UNCTAD, February, 1996; Statistical Handbook of Japan 2018.
 The TPP was revised after the USA pulled out, and is now named the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). It is also known as TPP11, as 11 countries remain: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam. It is the third-largest free trade treaty in the world, calculated by the countries’ combined GDP, after the North American Free Trade Agreement and Europe´s Single Market.
 “Abolition of Main Crops Seeds Law puts nation at risk“, Japan Times, March 20, 2018.
 Infographic: In 80 Years, We Lost 93% Of Variety In Our Food Seeds, FastCompany.com.
 Schapiro, Mark, “Seed diversity is disappearing — and 3 chemical companies own more than half“, Salon, September 16, 2018.
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