ILO COOP 100 Special Interview Series “Cultivate the COOPs” - Vol.3 Mr. Akihiro Takatsuka (Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives – JA ZENCHU)

News | 28 August 2020
On 23 March, 2020, the ILO Cooperative Unit celebrated its 100th anniversary. The Cooperative has a history of providing essential infrastructure and services to areas beyond the reach of government and corporate services, contributing to decent work and the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At a time when the world is facing the challenge of the spread of the new coronavirus and the need for solidarity among people is more important than ever, cooperatives are in the spotlight.

We take this opportunity to reflect on the activities of cooperatives in Japan in order to make the image of cooperatives (old and distant) more familiar and attractive to the younger generation. What role do cooperatives play in the future of work, our lives, consumption, and manufacturing, and in a time of crises, including the current COVID-19 pandemic? How can they create a better future? Through this interview series with cooperators who are active in their respective cooperatives, we would like to cultivate and explore the strengths and possibilities of cooperatives together with the ILO-Tokyo interns.
Mr. Akihiro Takatsuka
After graduating from university, he joined the Japan Agricultural Co-operative, Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives (JA-ZENCHU) in 2008 and worked in the Agricultural Policy Section, Comprehensive Measure Section and Urban Agriculture Office.  He was involved in legislation of the Basic Law on the Promotion of Urban Agriculture in 2015, the amendment of the Productive Green Land Act in 2017 and the Act on Urban Farmland Lease Facilitation in 2018 to reflect the voice of farmers in the legal system. In addition to the dissemination of the enacted laws among JA members and farmers, he led the formulation of promoting policy of the JA group, focusing on hands-on farming as a concrete measure to promote urban agriculture.  Since 2018, he is engaged in human resource development of JA's agricultural consultants in an agricultural consultants and farmers support division.

Agricultural Cooperatives: From cradle to grave

Q: What fields and what sort of business are JAs involved in?

JA is a cooperative organized for the purpose of protecting and improving farming and the living conditions of farmers and building a better society in the spirit of mutual aid. To this end, JA carries out a variety of projects and activities related to farming and livelihoods, such as joint purchases of production and living materials, joint sales of agricultural and livestock products, acceptance of savings, loans of funds for agricultural production and livelihoods, establishment of common facilities for agricultural production and livelihoods, and mutual aid for emergencies. Other activities include publishing, travel, care and medical services, and the operation of gas stations, supermarkets and farmers markets. 

From building bridges between law and an agricultural field to human resource development

Q: Could you tell us about your previous works of being engaged in legislation of the Basic Law on the Promotion of Urban Agriculture, the amendment of the Productive Green Land Act and the Act on Urban Farmland Lease Facilitation? 

I was in a position of middle management, coordinating between the relevant ministries and farmers. I played a role in delivering the voice of farmers on the purpose of the law, the direction it should aim to take, as well as the structure that was asked to develop at the agricultural filed sites, to the government.
However, each prefecture has its own opinion, so it was not easy to decide what kind of opinions I should represent as JA-ZENCHU. In order to foster a sense of acceptance among the people involved, it is important to be transparent in the process of accumulating opinions.  Furthermore, establishing a mutually trusting relationship between the people in charge of the project is vital. There is a time when honestly asserting farmers’ opinions is appropriate, but in other cases, it is not. At times, I was aware of the importance of expressing ZENCHU’s opinions based on the legislative approach, and I was consciously communicating this to the council of local public entity, JA and farmers.

Q: Could you tell us about your job of human resource development of JA’s agricultural consultants?

JA has introduced an examination system to be qualified as an agricultural consultant, so we organize basic knowledge needed for the consultants by revising textbooks to reflect amendments to laws and regulations, and planning and holding various training sessions on timely issues. One of them is organizing a presentation event where representatives from eight blocks across the country compete for the strategies of promoting agricultural management, a sort of "M1 Grand Prix" for agricultural consultants. In addition, we present to each council of local entity, the human resource development and personnel rotation policies that agricultural cooperatives should follow in providing agricultural management. We are also promoting the acquisition of GAP certification, which can guarantee the safety and security of agricultural products, and for this purpose, we dispatch experts from ZENCHU to provide guidance.

Valuing what is received "from the field" and what is delivered "to the field”

Q: What kind of work do you currently focus on in particular?

I think the workload of the agricultural consultant is increasing significantly, as they are busy with various tasks in addition to their conventional duties, including responding to the new schemes such as GAP and HACCP and assisting with subsidy applications.  Since not all of them are supermen, I am concerned that they are too busy with a variety of tasks to focus on the most important tasks. In order to improve this situation, we are still trying to figure out what support we can provide from a national perspective, including, for example, making effective use of ICT to improve business efficiency.
In fact, I am also in charge of efforts to promoting urban agriculture.  With the expiration of the Productive Green Law Act in 2022, we are now at the point where we have to decide whether we should continue farming under the regulations or stop farming. It is also important to present methods for encouraging as many people as possible to choose to continue farming. We conduct a survey of all relevant local governments and JAs to understand the challenges and examine the most effective ways to address them, and inform farmers of available supports for continuing agriculture, including various laws and regulations.

* GAP (Good Agricultural Practice) refers to agricultural production process management to ensure the sustainability of food safety, environmental protection, and occupational safety.

* HACCP is a hygiene management method that attempts to ensure product safety.  Based on the food businesses' assessment of the hazardous factors, such as a bacteria that causes food poisoning and food tampering, the most important process in all from the receipt of raw materials to the shipment of products are controlled, in order to remove or reduce these hazards.   This approach has been announced by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a joint agency of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and is an internationally recognized method that has been recommended for adoption by countries.

Q: You are in charge of a wide range of tasks.  When do you find your job rewarding?

I was happy when the voice of farmers was reflected in the urban farming law that we were working on, and that made the system become more practical.  I am also very happy when I hear that farmers have taken the profits from the law and they were able to keep their farmland or start a new farming operation.  As ZENCHU, we collect opinions through the council of local entity, but I think it is important to hear from not only the council of local entity but from JAs and farmers directly and to actually go to the field and feel it with your five senses, without organizational bias.

Organized emergency response system, not to impose a burden in a disaster area

Q: How have you collaborated and cooperated within the JA Group during emergencies such as the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and the Great East Japan Earthquake?

One of the features of the JA Group's emergency response is that we systematically sort out the needs of people in a disaster area and collect information at the council of local entity as well as ZENCHU. In times of chaos, sending people and goods in an unregulated manner actually put a burden in the area. By organizing and consolidating information, and understanding the needs for material support (drinking water, food, blankets, etc.) as well as human resources (volunteer teams), we will be able to allocate resources appropriately. For example, after the torrential rains in Kyushu in July 2020, we sent people, shovels and other resources to help restore greenhouses and agricultural product collection sites that had been damaged by the mud.

Furthermore, in the case of the Great East Japan Earthquake, we worked with the council of Fukushima Prefecture and other institutions to provide compensatory negotiation service with Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO), which was difficult for an individual prefecture to do on its own, and this effort is still going on.
I believe that this support system is rooted in the spirit of mutual aid of cooperatives. I have heard that farmers in Kumamoto prefecture in Kyushu who received support after the earthquake in 2016, are now actively working to support farmers in the severely affected area by the torrential rains in Kyushu in July 2020.

Accurate information transfer and workforce matching during the period of COVID-19

Q: In this COVID-19 crisis, how do you support and collaborate with the existing wide network?

Concerning the logistics of agricultural products, farmers raised a debate whether it would be better not to ship the products, if it is confirmed that staff and farmers at a collection and shipping point are infected.
In cooperation with Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan (MAFF), we confirmed that no foodborne infections have been detected.  We shared this information with each prefecture's council and JA, and told them to refrain from taking excessive measures to maintain a stable supply of agricultural products even in an emergency.
In addition, we supported labour force matching to solve the labour shortage caused by the technical intern trainees' inability to visit Japan. For example, in the production of highland lettuce in Tsumagoi Village, Gunma Prefecture, we assisted in matching with the neighbouring ryokan and restaurant industries. What made this project difficult was that we were unable to provide support across the prefecture to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Therefore, we focused our efforts on what kind of support we could provide within the region.

Q: What will become an important issue in your future activity?

Due to the impact on inbound and export sales, sales promotion, especially of high quality food products, has become an issue. Some agricultural cooperatives offer crowdfunding and mail-order shipping support, but I think it is important to continue to do these things. At the same time, we will need to experiment more than ever to find out how far we can adapt our support methods to the changes in consumer behaviour in With / After Corona.

Our commitment to sustainability because of being with "the land that never moves"

Q: Among the SDGs and other social issues, are there any areas that you are most concerned about/need to work on?

Rather than taking new initiatives for the SDGs, I think it is important for the JA Group to re-organize and work on what we have been doing to date in line with the SDGs. As an agricultural cooperative, JA is committed to promoting sustainable food production and agriculture, but if we were to translate these into the SDGs, I think the issues of hunger, minimizing the amount of abandoned farmland, and the proper use of fertilizers to prevent soil degradation would apply. Activities that make the most of the multifaceted functions of agriculture will also lead to the creation of sustainable communities to live in and climate change countermeasures.
JA is an organization of farmers who live in the community.  They need land for production, so we cannot just run out of the resources in the area and move to another place. For this reason, we have always had a strong interest in sustainability, and we understand that our existing efforts directly link to the SDGs.

Joining the JA ZENCHU, aiming to create a system that rewards farmers

Q: You have once told about your reasons for working for the JA ZENCHU through a job search website, Mynavi. Why did you choose working for the JA ZENCHU, not another option of being engaged in agriculture yourself?

There are two reasons.
First, I wanted to think about the systems surrounding farmers. That is why I wanted to be involved in legislation of laws and the systems. While I thought about working for the MAFF, one of my deciding factors was that Zenchu, with its small number of employees (less than 200), would give me more chances to get involved in a wide range of work at the individual’s discretion.
The second factor was the high hurdle for me to change jobs. It would be difficult to work for an organization such as JA ZENCHU after working as a farmer, but I thought the hurdle could be relatively low if you go the other way.
I often heard people saying negative issues about the JA group, but I joined it because I thought that I could stop working if that was true, or I could improve it. As a result, I am still working here. (laughs)

Q: Have you been able to realize your vision?

I have watched and listened to my grandparents working diligently in agriculture since I was a child, and my belief that "farmers who work diligently must be rewarded for their efforts" is the starting point of my agricultural policy. In recent years, Japanese agricultural policy has tended to emphasize economic efficiency. I do not mean to deny this, but we cannot compete with foreign markets based on efficiency.  Therefore, I would like to promote the importance of Japanese agriculture, the value of growing crops in Japan, among Japanese people.
About 70 percent of Japanese people now live in urban areas, and since more people are born and raised in urban cities than in the past, I think it is important to provide experiences of agriculture to these people from their youth in order to promote their understanding of agriculture in Japan.  Urban agriculture accounts for less than 10% of the total agricultural output, however, I believe that increasing the opportunities to see, be involved in and experience it in urban areas would develop the understanding of its value.

Q: I was born and raised in a city, but I remember a weeklong homestay with a farmer in Hokkaido, and it really changed my perspective towards agricultural products.
When you experience farming, the way you look at the crops may change. It would also change the way you look at weather, such as typhoons and heavy rain.  Recently, in urban areas, there are also initiatives called "hands-on farms" where farmers teach farming to those who would like to experience it.  As a proverb says, "a picture is worth a thousand words," I believe that if more people are interested in agriculture through the experience, that will increase their support to the agricultural sector and ultimately serve as a platform to reward farmers.

Urban agriculture is a platform to promote the "Supporters of Agriculture"

Q: Based on your experience, what possibilities do you see for urban agriculture?
I would suggest that urban agriculture could be at the forefront of agricultural understanding. Although it is not well known, even in Tokyo, you can see a wide variety of agriculture, including radishes, komatsuna, udo, and, surprisingly, passion fruit, and other crops, as well as pastures. Many older farmers used to be reluctant to allow people to enter their farmland, but now more than ever, more farmers think that they need to gain understanding of the surrounding communities.  So we expect that we can create more opportunities for them to come into contact with urban agriculture. This kind of initiative plays an important role in building a support network for agriculture. The situation differs depending on each region, and we would like to expand our activities further. As part of this initiative, we conducted a survey in collaboration with the Juntendo University the Faculty of Medicine, and found that working on a hands-on farm contributes to a certain amount of stress reduction and increased well-being. In order to broaden understanding of agriculture of those who are not interested in it as well, we transmit a viewpoint of health management for employees. We will also work on increasing the number of ways in which interested parties can access the information.

Q: Given the educational significance of urban agriculture, it seems that there is a potential for collaboration with schools and welfare facilities.

In fact, the number of collaboration cases between agriculture-welfare is increasing.  In Nerima Ward where I live, a farmer started a program last year to get people with welfare facilities and other institutions to harvest and sort asparagus.
Since there are many schools and welfare facilities in urban areas, there are still lots of possibilities to increase cooperation between agriculture and welfare in urban agriculture. Farming contributes to improving the mental and physical conditions of people with disabilities, so I believe that this is another element of its value and potential.

Future theme: from in-house production towards external collaboration

Q: What do you think the JA Group can do to contribute more to the Japanese agriculture and local communities in the future?

think what is unique about agricultural cooperatives is that they are organizations that can seriously address the future of agriculture in their communities. There are many wonderful agricultural production corporations, but they inevitably need to focus on themselves and their group's management. On the other hand, since agricultural cooperatives consist of local farmers, they themselves can work together with local governments and other organizations to develop a plan for the future of local agriculture while considering the overall optimization of the region. In the past, there were many different opinions among farmers regarding the business model of agricultural cooperatives, but now, with active communication and coordination, various ways of interaction are developed, and its business model is changing. I expect that by continuing to promote communication and cooperation between various actors, local agriculture will be able to keep moving forward in a better direction.

Q: Are there any changes that JA Group needs to make in order to move forward?

In the past, there was a strong tendency to solve everything within the JA group (in-house production).  While a variety of private enterprises, including large, well-known corporations, are entering the agricultural industries, community-based organizations of agricultural cooperatives may have been suspicious of or allergic to the attitude of private companies that prioritized economic efficiency in their business operations. However, with the rapid progress in technology, it is becoming more difficult to respond to the challenges through in-house production alone, and collaboration with external agencies is developing.  For example, the JA Group has recently launched the AgVenture Lab in collaboration with various start-ups, and we will support their activities.

Q: What changes and initiatives do you think are needed to make JA more accessible to the younger generation?

Recently, in addition to using social media, we have launched an e-commerce website, crowdfunding, and various other initiatives. As for how to create connections consciously through digital means, I think it is necessary to incorporate the real-life experience of farming and urban agriculture into the process.  In collaboration with external organizations, we would like to promote people’s understanding of our work.

Q: Finally, how would you describe the cooperative in one word?

We think of it as a "people's organization" for better or worse. ZENCHU was reported in the media as being at the top of the JA Group pyramid, but the reality is different. If that were the case, how easy our work would be. (laughs)  We need to work with understanding of stakeholders from all through Japan.  They are diverse in geography, weather and culture, thus consensus building is complex and takes time. The same is true for each JA organization, as its stakeholders also have variety of ideas and interests for various products in the region.
In my opinion, the following three elements are necessary for consensus building.
(1) Reason: logic
(2) Emotion: compassion, human relationships
(3) Mind: will, thoughts and beliefs

In a private enterprise, a small number of major shareholders can form a consensus, so "reason" has a large impact, but in a cooperative society, including agricultural cooperatives, it is one-person, one-vote basis, so I feel that "emotion" and "mind" carry a lot of weight in forming a consensus.  To make a change is very difficult, but I think it is important to take your time and keep on doing it diligently.
While it takes a risk in making a too rapid change, the unique quality of cooperatives to change with the proper agreement of a certain number of people is an aspect, which plays a role in the diverse society and increases its sustainability.  The COVID-19 crisis greatly influenced imports from other countries, and interest in agricultural production and food security in Japan has increased, and agricultural policy, which used to lean toward economic efficiency, has begun to show signs of change.
In other words, because it takes time for us to build a consensus, we can act and proceed with a down-to-earth approach to what has been decided.

Q; Thank you for your cooperation.