Kyoto Organic Action: impressions of the project after the "Peasants’ revolution" gathering (Guilherme Raj, Wageningen University)

FEAST HQ Report, WG3

“Kyoto Organic Action” (KOA) was created in the beginning of 2017 during a gathering of organic producers in the Nantan area, northwest of Kyoto City. Kentaro Suzuki, owner of the “369 local & organic yaoya” veggie delivery company, organized the event aiming to boost the dynamics and interactions between farmers, distributors and vendors – something that he didn’t see happening when he moved in to Nantan. During the event, the idea of sharing the transportation costs and logistic system of organic products with buyers in Kyoto City led to what is, today, called “Kyoto Organic Action” (KOA): an organization aimed to decrease the distribution costs of agriculture goods produced by small scale organic farmers, and to expand, in the long-run, the trade between organic producers and buyers in Kyoto Prefecture: Something Kentaro Suzuki named “Community Supported Transportation” to play with the Community Supported Agriculture concept.

One year later, on March 3rd and 4th, the “Peasants’ revolution” event was organized based on the experiences of the initial gathering in 2017. This time, 128 participants attended the event that took place in a community house owned by the NPO Tukaisutejidai-wo-kangaerukai (the name, literally meaning ‘the association to reconsider the throw-away society’, which is also one of the oldest extant organic vegetable teikei groups in Japan) in Nantan. The goal was to get acquainted with each other and to participate in a brainstorm session about the future developments of the agricultural sector.

The event was organized into 3 main parts over two days: 1) A group discussion where participants were divided into 8 groups to share their experiences and to discuss the main issues that farmers are facing today; 2) A celebration with a feast and drinks alongside informal conversations between the participants; 3) Lastly, an introduction to KOA by the founders of the initiative and a presentation about their future plans.

The highlights of the group discussion

Before jumping into the group discussions and exploring each other’s current issues, the founders of KOA (and facilitators of the event) directed our attention to the relevance of distinguishing urgent and important problems. They stressed this as a key factor in strengthening one’s autonomy and agency. To illustrate the advice, the facilitators gave the example of farmers that are too busy dealing with immediate issues that constantly come up, such as snow damages in their fields after a large storm. When we only prioritize urgent problems, we are, as a result, unable to explore the greater causes of the issue – which may not be urgent but are important over the long term (such as establishing a support network to help with necessary labor in cases of extreme weather events). In this sense, by asking more “why” questions, one could develop their own policies, values and beliefs to better solve issues that are more consequential over the long term. Here, the unpredictability and vulnerability of farming was put forth as an unavoidable condition to any agro-food system. Something that top-down systems often disregard, they claimed. Dealing with this vulnerability by building up strict plans, however, was presented as a weak strategy. Rather, the facilitators advocated for the development of one’s capacity to observe and orient before deciding and acting for unpredictable circumstances – what was described as a core principle of organic agriculture: co-existing with and nurturing life with all its uncertainties.

A vast range of topics were brought up in the discussions on the first day. Overall, they touched upon specific issues such as: farmer’s health not always reflecting the quality of food they produce (because they may lack the time to eat properly); the insufficiency of JAS organic standards; the need to understand “organic” beyond a tasty product and the dichotomy it implies between conventional and non-conventional production; the challenges of contemporary rural dynamics in Japan where depopulation and aging lead to a decrease in the number of knowledgeable farmers; and the importance of making organic agriculture more propitious to young farmers.

Time to celebrate the gathering!

In the evening, we found time to try the delicious “yin and yang” food made by Ms. Hou Nishimoto – a kind and thoughtful lady that explained that because thinking and discussing stimulates our “yin” side, “yang” food was served to facilitate a balance in our inner energy. The evening was also an opportunity to get to know each other and try different sakes brought by the participants – it is important to mention that this was one of the most expected moments of the event, which is evident from the image on the poster: a bottle of sake!

KOA Introduction

On the following day, Sunday the 4th, a warm breakfast with fresh miso soup, rice and cabbage salad got us ready for the last session with presentations about the KOA. First, three of the companies that founded KOA were introduced: 369 veggies delivery; Asuka Organic Farm and Shop; and Sakano Tochu, a food box company. Some of the claims brought up in the presentation were:

  • With the sudden increase in delivery fees, transportation costs have become too high – which makes small scale organic production less accessible
  • Small producers in rural areas depend more on private delivery system to reach consumers
  • Vendors often impose a certain demand instead of consulting the amount with farmers
  • The need for more coordination between farmers, and between farmers and vendors when organizing the timing and variety of expected harvest to avoid the overlapping or overproduction of the same produce

KOA wishes to overcome these issues by working on the following goals:

  • Create a well-coordinated network of producers between and within existing communities
  • Better connect producers, distributors, sellers and consumers
  • Get information about existing distribution channels to maximize efficiency and minimize transportation costs
  • To conduct a survey of farmers to assess potential production and hold workshops to share skills and production knowledge

Final comments

This event provided space to create dialogue between producers and sellers and challenged participants to think outside the conventional agriculture system in Japan. Alternative food networks are trying to go another step beyond providing organic products through direct sale operations and box schemes. It also creates a common social learning environment where tacit knowledge is shared and creativity is fostered out of “bricolage”.

KOA is a market niche initiative that aims to take advantage of their collective community networks to further reach more farmers, buyers and other food system actors, including consumers, that think alike. On the one hand, they are able to count on their accumulated market expertise and to build on the existing system and its organizational settings. On the other hand, they are reaching into new territory where they are attempting to expand their network of independent small producers to mobilize more resources, which they hope will constitute the foundation for a new and more robust food culture in Kyoto. If KOA manages to develop a convenient system to reach its goals, more profit can potentially be generated. But who will benefit from this profit? The producers? The consumers? The companies involved? Or KOA itself? And at what expense?

Initiatives like KOA are important laboratories for pathways to support innovations in the politics of food systems. Their primary focus is in the establishment of a new organizational logic to improve the logistics of food distribution in which no specific party – and expertise – dominate. To this end, they accentuate the importance of all parties contributing their expertise in service of the whole – which touches upon the sharing economy concept. Nonetheless, the inclusive process of institutionalization which KOA is currently going through has been proven to be a delicate and complicated endeavor. The commercial-orientation that grassroots innovations choose during the institutionalization process can attract attention, investments and reach larger scales, but often at the expense of its values and principles alongside the erosion of democratic practices (Martin et al., 2015). It is going to be important to follow up with the fast-paced development of KOA to understand the processes through which they overcome challenges that will emerge during the institutionalization process, and to better understand how they will be able to protect their core values and the democratic community-based approach they aim to build.

<References>

Martin, Chris J., Paul Upham, and Leslie Budd. “Commercial orientation in grassroots social innovation: Insights from the sharing economy.” Ecological Economics 118 (2015): 240-251.

(Editing: Mai Kobayashi)