Saturday, 6 March 2010

The meaning of food

Tetsutaro and Tomoko Tamaki, orgainic rice growers from Chiba

Tetsutaro and Tomoko Tamaki are examples of how the way food is produced and sold in Japan  is being re-evaluated. Part of an environmentally and socially aware generation across the world, they are asking  questions about large scale agribusiness and  its impact on smaller food producers, and on the quality of food we eat. They are also interested in the relationship between food consumers and producers. For most of us, that means no relationship at all, but they would like to see that change.

They grow organic rice in Chiba prefecture, and sell only to people that know them personally and trust the quality of their food. Known as 'face to face' trading, consumers are able to know definitely how food is produced and who their money is going to. Food sold in this way is likely to cost more than supermarket food, but it is local, and the buyer knows that all their money is going to the producer with earth under their nails, rather than them receiving a laughably small percentage of a supermarket price.

"Why is food so cheap?" Tomoko asks. "It is too cheap for small farmers to make any money from. Small farmers in Japan really struggle to make a living, as the price of rice is too cheap. Imported rice, and rice that has been grown using lots of chemicals on big farms means that the people who traditionally farmed Japan are having a very hard time." While Japan still has many relatively small farms compared to other developed countries (for example England, where land ownership is concentrated into fewer hands), her view is that most of these smallholdings are just subsisting, growing vegetables and rice for their own use, as selling it is not a viable option for many.
This makes it all the harder for Japanese farmers to think about moving towards organic production, though Tetsutaro and Tomoko are hoping to gradually get this message across. "Small farmers are quite traditional, so you have to give them time to come around slowly."

"We need to think about paying more for our food. Of course it is nice to have cheap things, but there are hidden costs to other people." They did not grow up as farmers, but became interested in food and decided to be part of the move back to the land that some  people are attempting to make in Japan. "It can take time to be accepted, but to be honest we get on well with everyone - better sometimes than the older families do themselves! There are feuds going back generations, maybe hundreds of years, so long that the families have no idea what started it - just that their family is not supposed to talk to the other family! They all talk to us though."

They provide an alternative image for what it can mean to be a farmer. Growing high quality food for sale through their own distribution network, and mixing that with their lives as musicians and a dose of social awareness, they show that farming can be carried out in many different ways and can co-exist within a rich cultural framework. After we finished talking they packed up the hollow tree trunk and big wooden hammer used for beating omochi rice. Every year they bring some of their rice to Tokyo, so that people who have experienced homelessness can join in the fun of making and eating new year omochi, which is essential to any Japanese new year.

The laughing, shouting, grinning circle of  people had chanted in time with the swing of the mallet, loud in the confined space between two buildings. Far from where the rice was grown, but linked by the companionship of this ritual, we had all shared in part of the real meaning of food.


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