Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the business of seeds in Japan. As I pointed out in the column, the vast majority of Japanese farmers do not make their own seeds because it is a difficult, time-consuming process. Consequently, the number who actually do make their own seeds diminishes every year. From 1990 to 2007, the amount of land in Japan used for making daikon seeds decreased from 400 hectares to 65; for cabbage, 165 ha to 35. One of the main criteria for seed-growing on a commercial scale is isolation, so that foreign seeds or anything else that might compromise the seed-making vegetables don’t enter the picture and lead to hybrids or interbreeds. Ideally, seed vegetables should be grown in a valley surrounded by large hills or even mountains, which is why the main area for seed-making in Japan is the Tango Peninsula in Kyoto Prefecture, which juts out into the sea–very little chance of contamination. Another reason for the loss of seed-making is the loss of seed-makers. The technology is not being handed down to a younger generation of farmers because the economic incentive isn’t there. The two seed companies mentioned in the column procure their seeds from a variety of sources throughout the world, including some in Europe and China.
Dependency on foreign seeds is even more unsettling than dependency on foreign produce, which is why Monsanto’s possible entry into the Japanese market is something that should be discussed in the media. Though a lot of scientists have questioned the safety of the sort of genetically modified produce that Monsanto and other biochemical multinationals have a monopoly in, there are just as many experts who say that GM food is an essential resource for fighting hunger, including at least one famous environmentalist who recently recanted his anti-GM opinions. That’s not the concern here. The concern is economic. Monsanto owns the patent on its GM seeds, which means once a farmer starts using them he will find it almost impossible to go back to non-Monsanto seeds owing to the purposeful interrelationship between those seeds and the herbicides they were designed to support. Also, once those seeds enter the country there is a good chance their DNA will somehow mingle with local seed materials, thus bringing up the possibility that Monsanto could lay claim to any hybrid seeds that result from this mingling. The company has already shown than it is not afraid to sue farmers to protect its “property,” even if such mingling was totally inadvertent.
So the principles of local cultivation outlined in the documentary Yomigaeri no Recipes take on a significance that transcends any aesthetic or philosophical considerations. In its scope and purpose, the film may seem slight as it devotes a good deal of footage to rural values and the culinary arts, as if the only reasons we should preserve so-called heirloom vegetables are epicurean ones. Whatever one wants to say about Japan’s place in the world as a developed economy, it is not in danger of starving. Agriculture, both small-scale and large, thrives here and it appears more and more young people are now willing to enter the field. And while a good case can be made that public policies have led to inefficiencies in agricultural methods, the adoption of the kind of industrial methods that GM farming entails would simply change the landscape in Japan within a generation and forever. As the film points out, a large number of heirloom vegetables are already extinct because farmers have been encouraged to grow uniform vegetables based on hybrid seeds, which produce sterile vegetables. GM farming would simply accelerate this streamlining process. These are weighty concerns for an island country. It’s not just a matter of tradition-versus-progress.