21 : Promoting agrobiodiversity maintenance via social media in Japan

Greg de St. Maurice

Faculty of Business and Commerce, Keio University, Japan


This research examines the potential of social media, specifically the platforms Twitter and Instagram, to bring attention to issues related to agrobiodiversity in Japan. Agrobiodiversity, the variety of landraces or species relied upon for food and agriculture in a given place, is an essential component of sustainability and is addressed in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (goals two and fifteen). While social media platforms may be associated with the more negative aspects of consumption trends, their popularity and reach make them tools with the potential to stimulate sustainable and ethical consumption. Twitter and Instagram, with feed formats for tweets and images, public posts, and features that allow users to “follow” topics and tag their own posts to make them appear in others’ searches, serve as examples of platforms that can be used for outreach to new audiences. In Japan these platforms are currently utilized more by farmers, corporations, and consumers than by organizations promoting agrobiodiversity. While social media have their drawbacks, they are tools with great potential for promoting sustainability, especially via marketing, advocacy, and educational oriented content.


Agrobiodiversity, social media, outreach, Japan, crops, heirloom vegetables.


1 Introduction: Agrobiodiversity and Social Media

Agrobiodiversity, the variety of landraces or species relied upon for food and agriculture in a given place, bolsters food security; contributes to the livelihood of small-scale farmers; helps to alleviate the impacts of climate change; and is beneficial to a community’s nutrition and health (Kahane et al. 2013). As such, it is essential to many aspects of sustainability. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals bring agrobiodiversity into explicit focus under goal number two, target five (and again in different terms under goal number fifteen):


By 2020, maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at the national, regional and international levels, and promote access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, as internationally agreed (FAO 2019: 2)


Why is sustaining agrobiodiversity deemed so urgent? The Food and Agricultural Organization has determined that over the past century we have experienced a significant loss of genetic diversity for food and agriculture. Human societies have historically cultivated over six thousand species of plants for food. Only 200 of these are deemed to make major contributions to global food production and in 2014 researchers estimated that a mere 9 species made up two-thirds of all of the crops that were cultivated across the world (FAO 2019: 114). Concomitantly, many crop varieties are no longer being grown or consumed.

It is difficult to capture the nuanced implications of patterns related to agrobiodiversity simply by compiling global averages that describe large-scale trends (FAO 2019, Montenegro de Wit 2015). National and local specifics reveal shared tendencies but also disparities that can prove valuable in grasping the complexity of general trends.

In their survey of the factors that impact agrobiodiversity, the authors behind the FAO’s The State of the World’s Biodiversity of Food and Agriculture found that negative influences included urbanization and outmigration and changes in dietary preferences (FAO 2019: 70). Two sets of variables they found had more of a mixed impact included economic, sociopolitical, and cultural changes; and markets, trade, and the private sector. 

These factors—urbanization; dietary preferences; economic, sociopolitical, and cultural changes; and markets, trade, and the private sector—indicate that changes in a community’s consumption patterns (consumption being a keyword in this conference’s theme) affect the agrobiodiversity that community is able to sustain. Social media plays a role here.

Food and agricultural industry stakeholders sometimes bemoan the effects of social media platforms on contemporary consumption patterns. I will list a few examples. Use of the term “food porn,” which portrays images of food created to appeal to people’s visual aesthetics as base and morally inferior, has become commonplace (McBride 2010). Some stories about food and social media zone in on the food waste that occurs when users purchase food to take photos and don’t consume it all (Fujikura, Yamato, and Fukuoka 2018, e.g.). When it comes to the social media platform Instagram specifically, terms like “Instagrammable” or インスタ映え(instabae in Japanese) have come about to indicate the pursuit of sharable photos that appear polished, perfect, and desirable in a homogenizing way. An article in The Atlantic magazine termed this the “Instagram aesthetic” (Lorenz 2019). What are the implications of such trends on ethical food consumption? How does it impact the maintenance of less photogenic, less trendy, and more marginalized foods, for instance?

A number of food studies scholars have countered arguments that food related content on social media platforms is merely superficial, homogenizing, and trivial. Pennell (2016) found that tweets (messages less than 280 characters broadcast publicly or privately) about food on the platform Twitter offer revelatory insights into local and national food systems, including the detection of false labeling of fish varieties and the documentation of businesses’ health and safety violations. Scholars in Finland concluded that social media campaigns focusing on the positive dimensions of reducing food waste were effective in promoting awareness about the issue and teaching solutions (Närvänen 2018). Adamoli (2012), meanwhile, has demonstrated how a coalition of actors in the United States used Facebook to engage in activism in favor of the labeling of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), culminating in the 2011’s Right to Know Rally, a nationally coordinated  protest. More directly related to agrobiodiversity, Signore, Seria, and Santamaria (2020) have shown that Wikipedia and other social media outlets are useful tools for disseminating information about biodiversity and increasing the visibility of individuals and organizations active in conserving heirloom crops and traditional knowledge. 

This research examines social media content from Japan related to agrobiodiversity on Twitter and Instagram. The focus is Instagram and Twitter because they offer greater potential than platforms like Facebook, Line, and Wikipedia to reach out to individuals as of yet unconnected or unfamiliar with the person or organization engaged in messaging. I performed keyword searches using Japanese terms related to agrobiodiversity, analyzed the most popular results in terms of the roles they performed (education / advocacy and marketing / entrepreneurship). After discussing my findings, in the conclusion I discuss the latent potential of these social media platforms as well as their downsides and obstacles to their effective use. 



2 Social media, agrobiodiversity, and Japan

Tens of millions of people in Japan use social media platforms, with the most popular being Line, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, in that order. According to Wikipedia, meanwhile, the Japanese language Wikipedia series has over 1.2 million pages, almost 15,000 regular contributors, and is the second most visited language Wikipedia (Wikipedia: 日本語版の統計 2020). 

On Instagram users can tag the images they post with “hashtags” (keywords preceded by a “#”). Users may also search for posts using hashtags and choose to “follow” posts tagged with words or phrases that interest them, which will then appear in their “feed.” Instagram has a number of hashtags in Japanese related to agrobiodiversity, including #在来種 (zairaishu, heirloom varieties) with nearly 30,000 posts and #伝統野菜 (dentō yasai, traditional vegetables) with almost 14,000 (as of August 21, 2020, noting that neither the number of users following the posts nor the number of users who have indicated that they “like” a post is disclosed). More local hashtags include #京野菜 (kyōyasai, a term used to refer to Kyoto vegetables) with over 81,000 posts #加賀野菜 (Kaga vegetables) with more than 13,000 , and the somewhat vague #島野菜 (shima yasai or “island vegetables,” used in Okinawa and the Goto islands, for instance) at nearly 19,000. Because posts can have an indefinite number of hashtags, users can tag images with keywords relevant to individuals already interested in issues related to agrobiodiversity (e.g. #seedsaving) and others that have a larger number of followers (e.g. #homecooking or #kyoto), thereby potentially allowing them to expand their audience. An image itself can garner attention, say if it features visually distinctive content as do photos of small purple minden eggplant from Yamagata Prefecture (posted with the hashtag #伝統野菜 by the account for Maemuki Farm, from the town of Yuza in Yamagata) or larger bulbous green aodaimaru eggplant, a variety associated with Saitama Prefecture (a post tagged #在来種 by Soya Unehata, an account for farmers from Hida Furukawa city in Gifu Prefecture). The visual distinctiveness of some unfamiliar crop varieties can clearly be an asset.

Twitter also enables communication with individuals not already connected to the account creating the posts. Like Instagram, it allows for the use of hashtags, though they are used much less frequently, and searches for content (not limited to hashtags). People can “retweet” messages written by others to their own followers and Twitter will also display tweets by unconnected individuals in a person’s Twitter feed if some of the accounts they follow have “liked” the content. While it is possible to subscribe to hashtags, as with Instagram, information about the number of subscribers is not made available. On Twitter users can include photos, video clips, and web links in their tweets. It is also easy for multiple users to exchange tweets, publicly or privately. Academic organizations have even used Twitter to hold virtual conferences in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, as did the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) and the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS) in 2020. It is not surprising, then, that organizations like the FAO and Japan’s Ministry of Forestry, Agriculture and Fisheries (MAFF) have Twitter accounts, with 390 thousand and 117.5 thousand followers respectively.

When it comes to promoting agrobiodiversity and sustainable and ethical consumption in Japan there seems to be comparatively little outreach via platforms like Instagram and Twitter. The results of searches using keywords like #在来種, #在来作物 #伝統野菜 , and other related terms reveal primarily tweets and Instagram posts by consumers, farmers, or those who work for corporations selling local or organic produce. One such example is the Farmers Market at United Nations University in Tokyo, active on Instagram (more than 2.5 thousand posts and almost 25 thousand followers to date) and Twitter (almost 9,000 tweets to date and nearly 9,000 followers), using the platforms to showcase participating producers and share news about ongoing and upcoming events. 

Three key orientations for content related to agrobiodiversity on Twitter and Instagram in Japan are marketing, education, and advocacy. Farmers who cultivate heirloom varieties use social media themselves to market their produce and network with other producers. Such is the case with the Twitter accounts for Yutaka Nōen (Kanagawa Prefecture Zama City) and Chiba Nōen (Miyagi Prefecture, Sendai City). Companies that use heirloom vegetables as ingredients in their products or in their designs also use social media for marketing purposes. Educational content ranges from posts about specific vegetable varieties and what makes them unique to instructions on how to cultivate or cook specific varieties (say sharing a recommendation for using a soy milk based white sauce for the kuro kawa squash, as @monme24 does on Twitter). On Twitter, keyword searches for #在来種 #伝統野菜and  #多様性reveal a number of exchanges between individuals interested in agrobiodiversity and heirloom vegetables. Much content on Twitter and Instagram blends these different orientations. Consider the Instagram account Tanenonakama, which promotes agrobiodiversity by teaching about different Japanese heirloom varieties. Each post includes an illustration of a variety portrayed as a girl in a kimono. Links to sites with additional information, including where to purchase seeds or the vegetables themselves, are also included. 

While younger farmers have established a strong social media presence, non-profit organizations in Japan directly or indirectly promoting action to maintain agrobiodiversity seemed comparatively absent on Twitter and Instagram, in spite of the potential for outreach. If losses in agrobiodiversity are linked to a decrease in the number of people who consume less common crop varieties, then reaching out to new groups could be achieved in part via social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram that enable users to broadcast messages to a wide audience. Takaya and Goto (2020), for instance, explain that actors in the city of Hachinohe, aware of how instabae and social media are related to consumption trends, have incorporated the use of social media in their strategies for boosting local seafood consumption. 



3 Conclusion

In order to use social media platforms effectively to promote agrobiodiversity maintenance, individuals and organizations must be aware of the dangers and downsides to platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Anyone with a digital device and a connection to the internet can post using a chosen identity and engage with other users. Though this may make it easier for people in remote areas to interact with distant strangers, it also creates a space for the spread of misinformation and disinformation (Ireton and Posetti 2018). Recent research has shown that sensational but untrue content spreads more quickly than verified information and corrections (Dizikes 2018). Power asymmetries, meanwhile, enable corporations historically at odds with actors promoting sustainability to co-opt the rhetoric of sustainability to engage in re-branding in ways that can dilute or worse lead to misinformation and disinformation (Lewis 2018).

Social media content has become commercialized in a variety of ways that also impact sustainability. It would be naïve to assume that users posting content related to agrobiodiversity simply have educational, ethical, or activism oriented motives. Indeed, much social media content is created to further goals related to “personal branding, entrepreneurialism, and micro-celebrity” (Lewis 2018) which may result in the use of hashtags unrelated to actual content as a means of gaining greater exposure and increasing views. This can make it more challenging to find and identify accurate information about agrobiodiversity and sustainability.

While certainly not limited to content pertaining to sustainability, issues also exist on the user / audience end when it comes to data use and commercialization and specifically a lack of transparency as to how user data is used and sold by platforms.

Another issue is that of labor. It is a challenge for agricultural producers, local officials, and NGO employees in more marginalized areas and unaccustomed to the norms of using such technology to maintain a regular digital presence and communicate with other stakeholders on various social media platforms.

Be that as it may, social media have become inseparable from contemporary economic, political, cultural, and social life. Individuals and organizations concerned with threats to agrobiodiversity will likely use these platforms to an increasing extent. Though tweets and Instagram photos cannot singlehandedly stem the loss of species and landraces of crops in Japan, they can help individuals and groups seeking to promote the maintenance of agrobiodiversity broadcast their message to wider audiences. 




Thank you to the two anonymous reviewers and Kazuhiko Ota for suggestions that proved helpful in the revision process.


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