Today, like any other everyday items, our foods are produced in a form of industrial process, which lead to mass-production and hence the current food system.
Amid population growth and climate change, we are at stake on food systems. What is certain is that we must steer agriculture towards a sustainable way. In these times, I would like to turn the spotlight on a social aspect of industrial agriculture, which is paid less attention compared to adverse environmental impacts.
Learn more about Industrial Agriculture in this video:
Kitsui (Demanding), Kitanai (Dirty), and Kiken (Dangerous)
The so-called 3K is a typical acronym to describe a blue-collar work in Japan; agriculture is often referred to a symbol of 3K. I had been working in the upstream of a vegetable produce supply chain in Japan. What I witnessed was the fact that the mainstream way for vegetable growers to survive in the current economy was to transform from family farming to industrial agriculture accompanied with crop monoculture and mechanization in large-scale in debt. Furthermore, growers are compelled to deal with giant retailers and food processing companies, who have a great leverage to bargain the price, harnessing economies of scale. What’s spurring on growers’ hardship is a labor shortage. The number of growers shrunk more than 30% from ten years ago due to aging and unattractive pay (1). Then, who are filling this gap? They are “Technical trainees,” who come from different Asian countries through a government-sponsored internship program (2). However, the reality is that they are engaged in low-wage manual work: 3K. Unfortunately, it is reported multiple issues, such as over-working hours, pay below the minimum wage, and workplace safety (3). Besides, I feel that the same is true of growers’ general working conditions.
In fact, food production is a fundamental and essential activity for human being; nevertheless, our food system is based on the toll on workers in the bottom of the food-system pyramid. Exploitation and abuse of farm workers is not an issue raised only in the horticulture sector in Japan, but a global phenomenon around the world in the agricultural sector (4). After all, vulnerable workers are paying the price for us.
Will We Continue Embracing This System?
Industrial agriculture enabled us to produce commodities cheaply; the question is if it is sustainable from a viewpoint of workers’ conditions; this is a human rights issue. The reason to question to the current industrial agriculture is not only due to negative environmental impacts.
Towards Sustainable Food Systems
We, the business leaders who are engaged in food and agriculture industries, can become part of driving force towards sustainable food systems. One of the encouraging concepts to tackle sustainability challenges that I learned during my MBA studies is path dependence. It explains that future decisions are influenced by past decisions. We are inclined to take a path that are prepared in front of us; therefore, it is normal to face resistance to change. We can drive a change towards sustainable practices, regardless of size of impacts, by embracing this mindset.