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Interviews with our new Chairperson Vol. 1

[Interviews with our new Chairperson] The deadlocked globalism of food – what can we achieve through collective purchase?

Just as the globalism of the free movement of “people, goods and money” across geographical restraints is currently advancing, the novel coronavirus “COVID-19” is spreading in the great cities of the world, shaking past values and lifestyles to the core. The Seikatsu Club movement has attempted, as far as possible, to circulate food, energy and human relationships of mutual support necessary for daily life within the face-to-face community, but what can be done by the Seikatsu Club movement in this new era? We conducted a two-part interview with Ms. Yuriko Ito, who was newly inaugurated as Chairperson of the Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Co-operative Union at the 31st Annual General Meeting.

Self-sufficiency for coexistence

Ms. Yuriko Ito, Chairperson of the Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Co-operative Union
――What kinds of changes are taking place in the food situation now?

When the worldwide spread of the novel coronavirus infection was reported in the media, the first thing that came into my mind was “will Japan’s food be alright?” According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Japan’s food self-sufficiency in fiscal year 2018 was a mere 37% (calorie-based calculation). At the end of 2018, the Transpacific Partnership (TPP11); in 2019, the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA); and in 2020, the Japan-USA Free Trade Agreement (FTA) came into effect. There were concerns that the impacts of increasing global free trade activity on agriculture would cause a further decline in Japan’s food self-sufficiency. It was perfectly possible that the danger of disruption to the free flow of goods could occur if there were multiple simultaneous disasters in the great cities of the world.
 
The Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Co-operative Union (SCCCU) upholds the goal of raising self-sufficiency and is supporting the production base of domestic agriculture, the livestock industry and fisheries as well as promoting efforts to use domestically-produced raw materials for food ingredients and even animal feed. While that is so, the production of some processed foods would become very difficult if imports of some trace processing aids were to be disrupted. Quickly asking our partner producers to check the situation, as the switchover to domestically-produced ingredients has now advanced to a high degree, there were almost no products that would go out of production due to import difficulties.

Happily, the trade in food was not disrupted this time, but there were many occurrences that caused concern, including some countries that did restrict food exports and other countries where infection spread in meat processing facilities. It is vitally important that countries, as far as possible, have self-sufficiency in food, and I think it is true to say that many consumers have a keen sense that this is something that is closely linked to social responsibility.

In the past 50 years, we have shared these ideas in our activities with a great number of members, but this time it has not only been us – support campaigns have been carried out for the domestic dairy industry and fisheries through supermarkets, on social media, and by other means. Many consumers have seen with their own eyes that the relations with producers are crucial, and I think movements to support producers by buying their products have arisen naturally. If this kind of activity takes root, I am hopeful that even larger numbers of people will come together to discuss the various problems we face.

To protect our daily lives

――What kinds of changes have been occurring in collective purchase, and how can we respond to these changes?

Orders from our members have increased rapidly due to the impacts of the temporary closure of schools and restrictions placed on going outside the home. However, there has been very little panic buying or hoarding. I felt very strongly that planned consumption and the trust placed in our producers was at the basis of this.

At the same time, perhaps because we now have many new members and there is more time to explore the catalog thoroughly, we have seen changes in consumption patterns that differ from those in the past, and this has caused serious problems at the production sites. We are extremely grateful to our partner producers, who pushed all other work to one side, made great efforts to secure raw materials, and took great pains to ensure that none of the products went out of production.

However, producers providing products for organizations other than Seikatsu Club, such as the restaurant industry and school meals, have been dealt severe business management blows, and it is possible that this will have impacts in the future. In the first place, looking historically, Seikatsu Club has always proposed that the business we do with our partner producers does not form a high percentage of the total business of the producer. This is because the idea of the Seikatsu Club movement is to influence the whole of society by offering other partners the chance to use the techniques and knowhow we have nurtured in product development with the producers, including the way products are produced without the use of unnecessary additives or genetically modified crops. In situations where producers who have faithfully put this into practice are facing difficulties, we decided to develop a support plan, because if Seikatsu Club doesn’t support them, who will?

――It also seems that there was relatively little confusion in distribution and other matters.

To respond to the trust placed in us by our members, and in order to protect our members’ daily lives, we firstly prioritized, above all other things, preventing disruptions to the supply of food ingredients, and so on. The Tokyo, Kanagawa and Saitama Seikatsu Clubs took the step of asking new membership applicants to wait one month before their application was processed. 
Since March, when products from producers all over the country were arriving at our Hanno Delivery Center in Saitama and were then sent on to dispatch centers in the different areas, situations arose, for example, where there were so many goods they couldn’t be loaded onto the vehicles. We were able, somehow, to overcome the problems through the efforts made by our partner company Taiyo Network Distribution Co., Ltd. I got a very palpable sense of the strengths in having our own distribution network and the network that we have built up with all the related organizations and people.

For producers, as well as delivery center, dispatch center and depot staff, along with everyone working in the workers’ collectives and outsourcing contractors with the ever-present threat of infection, the issue of health management and staying safe is critical. Each of our divisions has done its utmost, while communicating our gratitude to those standing on the very front line, to find ways of controlling the burden. At one of our dispatch centers in Tokyo, members have posted messages saying, “Thank you!” and “Keep up the good work!” on the wall. I think something similar is happening at the centers all around the country. For the staff and the people at the workers’ collectives, I think this has been an opportunity to once more get a real sense of the consumers’ co-operative being an organization that links producers and consumers, and that their labor is supporting the daily lives of many people.
Messages from members posted on a door (Photo provided by Tama Minami Seikatsu Club, Machida City, Tokyo)

Challenging our Imaginations

――What will become necessary in society from now on?

What I have felt keenly this time is that although we now live in a society where many different kinds of goods can be ordered online, it is the primary industries and distribution of goods that are the foundation of market circulation. I feel that how far we can go in having sympathy for and shedding light on this part of our work, which supports society, will once again be something that each of our businesses will be asked to consider.

There are a great number of industries in which telework is not possible. Among those who are unloading ships at ports many are overseas workers, and if they become unable to work, the import and export of food will come to a halt and food will not be able to move out onto the market. Technical interns from overseas who were working in agriculture have returned to their countries, and there is now a severe agricultural labor shortage. I have heard that when farmers, including dairy farmers, in France put out a call to unemployed people to come and support them, more than 200,000 people applied.

With what has happened with the coronavirus this time as a trigger, I think the government’s policies should be amended to put more emphasis on industries where people’s labor is required, such as the primary industries, medical care, welfare, and so on. There is a necessity to gather the voices of producers and their production sites and communicate these to the government.

One further facet is information disclosure. During this time, information required by citizens is not being fully provided in Japan and the trustworthiness of the information we do get is low. This is leading to an increase in anxiety. Information disclosure is one of the great premises of Seikatsu Club. This is an issue on which we should make demands of society while, at the same time, reconfirming disclosure within our own businesses.

――Many also have apprehensions about the issues of energy, poverty and economic disparities.

Earthquakes have been occurring with some frequency recently. If not for the coronavirus crisis, this would be a matter of considerable social alarm. The climate crisis is also very menacing, and the possibility of typhoon damage is a big worry in the upcoming season. At the same time, while we have no idea about the outlook for the economy after the coronavirus crisis ends, there is a danger that people facing economic difficulties will be pushed further out onto the periphery of society.

While it is not possible to make hasty judgements about the impacts of the novel coronavirus, the value criteria society has held to thus far, focused on money, will be shaken to their very foundations, and I think that the nature of human society will be very much called into question. How we fix our sight on the many things other than those we can actually see, such as coexistence with nature and social justice, will depend upon the imaginative and empathetic capabilities of each one of us.

(To be continued …)
Published on August 30, 2020

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