Farmers in many countries are icons of their nation’s ethos. But “American Gothic,” Grant Wood’s famed 1930s painting of a gaunt, stoic-looking farming couple complete with pitchfork, is by no means the whole story. In fact, today it is not even part of it.

Similarly, the notion of the traditional Japanese rice farmer carefully hand-planting seedlings one by one in an age-old paddy is now a thing of the past. This planting is called taue, and the only person who still does it that way may be the Emperor in his annual symbolic ceremony.

But wherever farmers are, and however they work, they are necessarily close to the land and presumably understand it best. Politicians, particularly conservative ones, have long sought to identify themselves with farmers’ lifestyles and their plight, subsidizing them and garnering critical electoral support in the bargain. By doing so they have presented themselves as custodians of the nation’s spirit.

But such politicians conveniently ignore the reality that some farming practices, necessary as they may be to sustain the farming families, have led to the gradual destruction of nature that is the source of their bounty.

It is these very same conservative politicians who have sacrificed the land, the water, the air and, perhaps, the very health of the countryside in the name of “development” that has long since lost its relevance in every modernized country of the world.

A similar thing is happening in Australia, where I am writing this and where the courageous and rugged farmer, battling natural odds, has long stood as the premier national icon. But here, those odds are finally stacked too heavily against many of them and they want out.

Relocation and retraining

Farming is no longer tenable in a large number of drought-afflicted districts; and the federal government is offering the equivalent of around $150,000 to farmers who leave the land, with an extra $20,000 for relocation and retraining. The fact, too, is that many agricultural practices suited to European conditions have led to the destruction of the rural environment when applied to such different ecological conditions as Australia’s.

At present, about two-thirds of Australian agricultural production is exported. What this means is that the driest continent on Earth — and one with a severe water shortage and draconian conservation measures in virtually every city and town — is actually a mass exporter of water, which the farmers have converted into food products.

Liberal-thinking politicians have generally been associated with urban values and their citified constituencies. But, in reality, it is progressive politicians and experts sympathetic to their causes who are, in terms of policy, the true friends of the Earth.

We have come to the point in Japan, in Australia, in the United States and in just about every European country, where we see our role as humans in preserving and caring for the countryside. This is not only out of aesthetic considerations, though the spiritual importance of natural beauty and its contribution to the art and culture of a country can never be underestimated. It is also a question of survival.

Until now it seems as if our working philosophy has been encapsulated in the expression, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” This biblical saying may sound quaint, but it has begun to take on a concrete and threatening character.

Clearly, rural circumstances and agribusiness in Japan and Australia vary widely. Australia can feed itself abundantly; in Japan, which imports 60 percent of its foodstuffs (on a caloric-intake basis), self-sufficiency is no more than a pie-in-the-sky strategic notion of national sustenance.

But in both countries, the essential point of who is best equipped in this century to look after and husband the land is, I believe, the same. Rather than subsidizing our farmers either to plant, not to plant or to leave the land, shouldn’t we be giving them the means to take care of our nations’ landscapes, to bring the land and its environs back to life? It is conservative governments, such as successive ones of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan and the Liberal Party in Australia, that have betrayed the traditional role of the farmer and smashed the icon of the idyllic countryside until it is now in pieces, scattered over a polluted or barren land.

Wooing rural voters

The leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, Ichiro Ozawa, is taking this as an opportunity to court the countryside. In Australia, some pundits predict that the national election on Nov. 24 may be decided in rural Queensland; and opposition leader Kevin Rudd seems to be eager to offer the people there a new kind of hope for Australia’s outback. What is that hope?

It is that people living on the land should be the custodians of our rural heritage, producing what they do in harmony with the land, the water, the air and the natural world as a whole.

God knows what will happen to rural Australia as the country appears to be fighting a losing battle with nature. Climate change is now considered by many Australians to be the greatest security threat to the nation. The land is perishing, desiccating. As for Japan, perhaps no modernized nation has so thoroughly destroyed its natural endowments to the extent that this country has. But bringing these endowments back, while maintaining a viable rural sector, should be the goal of every thinking politician in the country.

We humans are constantly starting wars: the war on drugs; the war on terror; one damn war after another.

Isn’t it time to think positively, to spend those “war chests” on restoration and renewal? Conservative governments in the U.S., Australia and Japan haven’t given a dried fig for the land that has sustained their people for centuries. The profit motive has been their sole goal. Perhaps the true friends of the farmers of the 21st century are liberals who are striving to “conserve” what we have.

It’s not too late if we change the climate of thought and action.

A haiku by Issa Kobayashi (1763-1828) that tells of the resilience of nature and the renewal of life may give us hope in whatever country we live:

In spite of the many feet That have trampled it The meadow flowers

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