Here we feature an exclusive interview with one of the modern world’s true food heroes. We talk to Ryoko Shimizu, research fellow of the Japanese Consumer Co-Operative Union SEIKATSU. The role of civil society in establishing sustainable and local food chains in Japan, fair relations between consumers and farmers and the consequences of ongoing international trade negotiations on the future of food are all examined as topicsFor nearly 30 years, Ryoko Shimizuhas been working for the SEIKATSU CLUB, the consumers co-operative inJapan which came into life in 1965 as an initiative of women who wanted to reform their lives and local communities, based on a democratic and sustainable food system. The “women’s club”, which emerged at a similar time to the Teikei movement, later got involved in the co-operative movement under the motto “autonomous control of our lives”, in order to manage together a food chain from farms to consumers, so as to offer safe food to their members safe at affordable prices.
Today SEIKATSU counts 340.000 members, mainly from the 4 prefectures around Tokyo.
Arc2020’s Hannes Lorenzen interviewed Ryoko for ARC2020 in Tokyo in mid August.
Hannes: Ryoko, your co-operative began almost 50 years ago. What were women back then concerned about when they founded the club?
Ryoko: In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Japanese economy grew very rapidly. People left their hometown to live in urban areas to find their jobs. At that time, most women quit their job after getting married. Women were isolated and trying to find ways to help each other in daily lives. They were in general well educated, had a lot of talents, but stayed at home and did not work outside. Their families were very isolated, many women felt lonely. Co-operatives were the natural way of overcoming that isolation and providing enough and safe food for all.
H. SEIKATSU has grown to an impressive size. What do members of the co-op have to contribute and what can they decide?
R. The contribution in terms of fees is rather low, 1000 yen (7 euros) per month. But the influence on goals and management is high. Members define their own brand of products, which food items they wish to buy, processing, packaging and so on, this is all part of bottom-up decision-making. We have around 1700 items from basics like rice, eggs and milk, but also fresh fruit and vegetables fish, meat, and processed products.
H. Who is managing all that? Do you have paid staff?
R. We do have paid staff, but most of the members are not paid and still do a lot of voluntary work. However, the voluntary contribution is decreasing, as more and more women have a paid job now, and no time to contribute. But our strength still lies in our mutual aid business model. We conduct non-profit and co-operative business in local food systems, cooperation with farmers, but our role is also to do research on food quality, reduction of harmful substances, of food waste, promoting renewable energy and so on..
H. But you even own a milk factory..
R. Yes, this was at the beginning of the movement. It still is a symbol of solidarity with farmers. We have invested together and we supply together the urban neighborhoods. We have a similar kind of relation with rice farmers, mainly from the Yamagata area. We support small farmers, we have developed our own quality standards with them and we help them to move from a chemically based farming to a more sustainable food system.
H. Establishing your own standards and controls is not for free. How can you afford such a challenge and how does it work?
R. We do a lot of research and quality checks based on a voluntary system. We have decided to outlaw unsustainable chemicals, detergents; we are part of the movement against the use of GMOs in food production and of GMO free regions; we promote clean and local energy systems and recycling. There are more than 500 social businesses running these services, 40.000 users and 11.000 members of such businesses. It is all self-organised.
H. What about farm and food industry workers?
R. We have also created the workers collective movement on the local level, including lunch box deliveries; we offer social services in our local communities, such as help for the elderly, infants and children. These are 530 organisations with 17.000 members and a total sales of 14.8 bn yen (100.mio euro).
H. Do you get any public aid form the state to carry out these services?
R. No, workers collectives are not legally recognized which is a problem but our goal is to achieve that. The problem is that the state does not take this model of self-organization very seriously. We are told that co-operatives, especially farmers’ co-ops are not “competitive” and that they should produce more farm products for export.
H. Isn’t Japan already importing a lot of food from abroad?
R. Yes we are. We import now a lot of processed food from China, corn and soya beans from the US. However, on rice we are still almost self-sufficient as well as on fruit and vegetables.
H. Could that change if there was an agreement with the US on a Trans Pacific Trade agreement (TPP)?
R. Yes I think it would. Our government believes that Japan depends on trade, especially in the industrial and automobile sector and that we should specialize on a few high quality food products for export. They do not believe in the co-operative food and agriculture system, which is very unfortunate, because the movement and the knowledgeis here.
H. Has the tsunami and nuclear accident in Fukushima three years ago changed something? Are people not aware about the importance of healthy food and a more sustainable energy system?
R. Fukushima was a shock for us, but many people have quickly returned to business as usual. It is amazing how quickly people in the government and in the business sector can forget about that. Many people especially in urban areas are now more concerned about food scandal of imported poisoned chicken from China. Our co-op has our own control and our own safety levels for contaminated food. There is even a foundation to compensate farmers for losses when they cannot sell their contaminated food. But the nuclear complex and the dangers related to that are not an issue any more.
H. How do you see the future of food co-ops in Japan?
R. I think there is a future because the spirit of cooperation on food is still very strong. But I have to admit that voluntary contributions are decreasing and especially young people are missing. In general, young people seem to prefer enjoying their lives and are not so interested in the movement. When I was young, I was interested in traveling, discovering the world and getting organized for changing the world. This seems to be less popular today, but it is always worth trying to keep the cooperative and solidarity spirit awake.
SEKATSU received the “Right Livelihood Award” – the so-called Alternative Nobel Price in 1989, and the Awards of the United Nations of “the 50 Communities” which share a common unity and have a sense of place.
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