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In April, actress Ko Shibasaki tweeted that a bill sponsored by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to revise a law administering seeds and saplings would put farmers in a “difficult position.” Agricultural issues tend to fly under the radar of most people, but Shibasaki has many followers, and the media took notice, thus broadcasting her concern to a wider audience. The government initially shelved the bill, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason, but it seems to be intent on passing it during the current Diet session.

The ostensible purpose of the revision is to protect plant varieties that are important to the Japanese economy. At present, there are few measures to prevent foreign entities from growing these varieties outside Japan and profiting from their sale. For example, some fruit varieties developed and registered in Japan are grown and sold in China and South Korea without the patent-holders’ permission.

But as Shibasaki’s tweet implies, there is opposition to the bill, and a May 24 Abema Times article attempted to explain it. Registered plant varieties are protected in Japan, but in order for rights-holders to gain protection overseas they would have to register patents in each applicable country. The revision allows rights-holders to designate which countries their seeds can be exported to. The government would presumably block exports to undesignated countries.

However, a new documentary titled “Tane wa Dare no Mono” (Seeds Belong to Who?) says the matter is complicated, and the revision may make it more so. The movie stresses how specialized seed production actually is in Japan. Each prefecture has its own agricultural research center, which designs crop varieties specifically targeted for local soil and climate conditions. These facilities have been around for decades, and are successful. About 90% of the seeds they develop produce viable crops.

The research centers were set up through the Main Crop Seeds Law of 1952 as a means of maintaining the quality of five staples — rice, soya, wheat, barley and oats — so as to guarantee food self-sufficiency. However, the government revoked the law in 2018 in order to promote a new law designed to “strengthen and support agricultural competitiveness,” the purpose of which is to share seed information and knowhow developed by public entities such as the research centers with the private sector. Originally, the new law was formulated as part of the runup to the Trans-Pacific Partnership so as to placate the United States, which wanted better access to Japanese agriculture. Although the administration of President Donald Trump killed the TPP, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe still went ahead and abolished the Main Crop Seed Law.

Farmers are worried because traditionally they have been free to make their own seeds. They would buy seeds developed by the research centers through their local cooperatives but were not restricted from freely making new seeds from subsequent generations of the resulting crop. With the new law and the pending revision, this practice may become illegal.

The movie’s conscience is Masahiko Yamada, a lawyer-farmer who was agriculture minister in 2010. Since then, he has lobbied to bring attention to the dangers of TPP and attendant laws he says are destroying Japanese agriculture. Such laws, he argues, are not just putting small farmers out of business, but also reducing crop diversity, an action that can have a devastating effect on soil quality and production.

In one scene, Yamada explains that farmers in Mexico only buy registered seeds from multinationals, which means, legally, they cannot grow their own corn using seeds they make themselves from previous harvests if those crops were the products of the purchased seeds. The fear in Japan is that the development of locally targeted seeds, and farmers’ knowhow in producing seeds from harvests on an annual basis, will soon be things of the past. As in Mexico, Japanese farmers will have to buy new seeds every year, along with the fertilizers and chemicals developed specifically for those seeds, which are sold by the same companies.

According to the documentary, at least 21 prefectures have passed laws to protect their seeds and are calling on the central government to revive the Main Crop Seeds Law. And though the proposed revision is supposed to protect Japanese varieties by preventing their seeds from going abroad, it would also prevent domestic farmers from making their own seeds from registered crops. Multinationals like Bayer, which acquired the international agrichemical company Monsanto in 2018, already have partnerships with local companies ready to sell registered seeds to Japanese farmers. The farm collective JA, which administers agricultural policy on the local level, is no match economically for giant seed companies such as Syngenta. In the documentary, a strawberry farmer in Ibaraki says it will cost him an extra ¥10 million to buy seedlings every year, which is what he normally makes in sales. A grain farmer in Hokkaido says if he continues his current custom of making his own seeds every year, he could face prison on conspiracy charges.

Yamada calls the revision pointless since it is only enforced domestically. Practically speaking, it can’t prevent seeds from going overseas. If the agriculture ministry really wants to protect local varieties, they should register those varieties in foreign countries. One farmer he meets who has developed his own variety of grape says he welcomes the revision if it helps him collect royalties that he can’t currently collect. However, a different farmer wonders if it’s ethical to attach intellectual rights to food. Germany does not allow patents for living organisms.

When Yamada asks a rice grower in Hokkaido if he and other local farmers have discussed the revision, the man replies that he didn’t see much news coverage, and he only learned about the abolition of the Main Crop Seeds Law after the fact. In her tweet, Shibasaki said the revision hurts farmers, but it would also affect everyone in Japan, since limitations on seed creation could mean a substantial increase in food prices. As another farmer says in the film, food is not art — food is life.

“Tane wa Dare no Mono?” (“Seeds Belong to Who?”) opens at Uplink in Tokyo on Nov. 13. It is now available through streaming services.

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