13 : Being cared by vegetables: understanding Japanese farmers’ seed saving practices from care ethics point of view

Ayako Kawai

Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT


Transitioning current food systems to a more sustainable one requires a rethinking of human and nonhuman relationships. Care ethics has become a critical concept in exploring better human-nonhuman relationships. This paper uses Tronto’s (1993) care ethics to understand Japanese farmers’ seed saving practices. Tronto’s four elements of care ethics were useful to unpack Japanese seed savers’ practices and their values. However, there were a few elements that went beyond Tronto’s account, including the mutuality of care and farmers’ sense of intrusion of subject and object. More-than-human scholars have also examined similar aspects of care. While more-than-human ethics of care try to create connections even with distanced / invisible others, Japanese farmers' care was bound to direct physical relationships.


Sustainability, Care, Seed saving, Human-nonhuman relationships

1 Introduction

Human-plant relationships have drastically changed since the industrialization of agriculture. Traditionally, food production, consumption, crop improvement, seed multiplication, and the conservation of diversity were integrated into farmers’ daily lives. Farmers worked closely with their crops and intentionally managed it to meet their various demands and concerns, including environmental, cultural, and social demands (Bellon, 1996; Brush, 1995; Smale et al., 2001). Agricultural industrialization brought spatial and structural separation and specialization of food production, consumption, seed production, variety development, and conservation of diversity (Cleveland and Soleri, 2007). This resulted in the distancing not only between farmers and consumers but also between farmers and crops. Farmers in industrial nations nowadays purchase seeds from seed companies rather than collect seeds by themselves and breed their varieties. 

In the face of unprecedented challenges for industrial food systems, including climate change, degradation of natural resources, and loss of biodiversity, current food system needs to be changed (FAO 2014, FAO et al. 2020). This, in other words, is a call for rethinking relationships between humans and their surrounding environment. 

Care ethics has become a critical concept in exploring better human-nonhuman relationships in the face of the global sustainability crisis. Care ethics is a powerful concept that navigates our attention to context specificity, relationships, and interdependency between human and nonhuman relations (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017). This paper examines how Japanese seed-saving farmers (both full-time farmers and lifestyle farmers) perceive their relationships with their crops using Tronto’s (1993) concept of care.

Understanding food producers’ ethics that arise from local contextuality and bodily engagement is one important avenue to deepen the discussion of food ethics (Akitsu, 2018).  

I chose Tronto’s (1993) concept of care for analysis for two reasons. First, I assume that care ethics require a non-dualistic view of subject and object. I applied Tronto’s theory to test my assumption because she takes a dualistic view of care; “care implies a reaching out to something other than the self; it is neither self-referring nor self-absorbing” (Tronto, 1993, p. 102). Second, Tronto identifies four moral aspects that constitute care, so it provides a theoretical framework to analyze farmers’ seed saving practices. Tronto (1993) suggests that care is comprised of four phases and each phase is associated with the following ethical elements; (1) "attentiveness" of a care-provider to recognize a need for care, (2) "responsibility" felt by a care-provider in response to the identified need, (3) "competence" of care-giver for successful care, (4) "responsiveness" of care-receiver to care and a care-provider using it as a means to adjust their perception of needed care.

I used data that I collected as part of my PhD thesis that examined the diversity of values and practices of seed saving in contemporary Japan. Interviews and participant observations of six full-time organic farmers and four lifestyle farmers in six prefectures provided data for this paper (see appendix for interviewee details).



2 Entangled elements of care ethics

Tronto’s three elements of care ethics – attentiveness, competence, and responsiveness – were tightly related to each other among seed-saving farmers. Farmers' attentiveness was reflected in precise observation of individual plants, which was a skill that both organic and lifestyle farmers developed overtime. Since seed saving was a continuous process, farmers learned, developed their skills, and reflected their practices by observing how plants change over time. One of the lifestyle farmers noted that "I am always made more aware of the world that I did not know before". Similarly, an organic farmer suggested that he has developed his observation skills overtime, which allowed him to "start to see the world that was invisible before". When I told an organic farmer that I could not distinguish between crops that do not possess pure-to-type traits during an on-farm workshop, he said; "Sure. If you can see [the difference], that means that you start to understand that vegetable". Years of observation and interacting with plants brought him a change that he started to see subtle differences between individual plants. Farmers’ "attentiveness" was presented as an embodied skill that they acquired by learning how crops "respond" to farmers’ practices. 

 A stronger sense of responsibility was observed among organic farmers and less so among lifestyle farmers. Organic farmers that I interviewed shared the idea that it was their mission to conserve varieties that were disappearing. Some of the organic farmers also used the metaphor of plants as their children or other family members (including pets) and felt responsible for taking care of those plants. Responsibility arose based on intimate relationships built between a farmer and their plants. Lifestyle farmers, on the other hand, presented a different view. While one of them referred to his plants as being his family and saved seeds to “protect my family”, he referred to his plants as a family who feeds him (thus him being a receiver of care). He felt responsible for maintaining seed saving practices, but he also needed the relationship to continue.

While both organic and lifestyle farmers felt responsible for their plants, there was a distinct difference in how they shared seeds with others. Organic farmers were reluctant to widely share seeds based on the concern for the well-being of seeds after them being given to others. On the other hand, Lifestyle farmers were not concerned about how seeds were treated after giving and actively shared with others. This was partly because they harvested more than enough seeds that they could use and preferred to share it with others rather than disposing; “considering that every single seed is a lifeform (seimeitai) …I cannot waste them”. Lifestyle farmers actively shared seeds based on compassion and respect to seeds. 

Tronto’s four elements of care ethics provide a useful lens to understand Japanese farmers’ seed saving practices. The following section further examines insights from Japanese seed savers that do not adequately fit under these four elements of care ethics.



3 Beyond Tronto’s care ethics

Three factors arise from Japanese farmers’ seed saving practices that are not fully explainable by Tronto’s care ethics. They are; responsiveness of care-provider, care-provider receiving care, and the intrusion of object and subject.  

Organic and lifestyle farmers in my study were symbiotic in their relationships with their crops. For example, when I asked a lifestyle farmer whether his crops had changed over time to meet his needs, he answered, "yes. But that sounds to be unidirectional (ippōteki). It’s not only crops that have changed. I also changed my lifestyle”. While care-provider in Tronto’s theory is described statically, farmers experienced changes among themselves based on their relationships with their plants. 

  Lifestyle farmers expressed a sense of them as being a receiver of care provided by their crops. One of the lifestyle farmers noted that she feels sorry to eat vegetables as plants produce fruit for their own reproduction. “In return to receiving (itadaku) [food from vegetables], I’ll continue the lives of plants (using humble language which shows her respect to vegetables)”. This lifestyle farmer saved seeds to return a favor that she received from vegetables, although she felt it was not fully returnable. Similarly, another lifestyle farmer noted that he is “being fed (tabesasete moratteiru) (with an implication that those who is fed relies on the generosity of those who feeds)” by his vegetables. He perceives himself as a receiver and being cared by his vegetables. 

Organic and lifestyle farmers expressed a sense of feeling that the boundary between themselves and crops or surrounding environments blurred or intruded with each other. An organic farmer mentioned that once he establishes a deep relationship with his vegetable, then he starts to feel like those crops are his “double (bunshin)” and that he was “inseparable” to his plants. This inseparable connection allowed him to understand what the carrot wanted him to do. Lifestyle farmers also shared their experience of feeling that they are part of the big circulation of life (inochi no junkan) and losing a sense of them as being a separate individual entity. For example, Yumi shared her experience that when she was crying and farming after her father passed away, there was a moment that she was totally absorbed in her work. At that time, “I felt as if I became the same with bugs. I was not scared of death, and I felt as if I was part of shizen (nature)”. Lifestyle farmers shared their experience of feeling as part of the circle of life and ikasareteiru (being enabled to live) by the natural world.



Discussion and conclusion

This study showed that Japanese farmers' relationships with their crops were not fully accountable with a dualistic view of care proposed by Tronto (1993). Farmers shifted between the moments of dualistic and intruded self and others. Some of them, especially lifestyle farmers, also had a strong sense of being cared by plants or being in part of a broader circle of life, in which seed saving was also perceived as part of that broader circle of life. This holistic notion of care with an unclear boundary of care-receiver and provider was an important element that motivated farmers to continue seed saving practices. 

While intensive interviews were limited to ten farmers in six prefectures, I have an impression that findings in this study are not so much related to regionality within Japan, but more associated with traditional Japanese worldviews.  Shibata (1991) explained that the ancient Japanese considered the source of human lives (“ancestral spirit [mioyano mitama]” from which ancestors originated) and the source of crop lives (“grain spirit [ukano mitama]” from which grains originated) are the same, since grain has supported human lives. This idea is mutually supportive with interviewed organic and lifestyle farmers’ expression of losing the boundary between themselves and plants, and lifestyle farmers suggesting the sameness of human and nonhuman lives. 

 Such a worldview could be further explained by Teranishi (2018)(2018), who proposes “coexistence with nature” as one of the traditional Japanese ethics. This ethic is based on the indigenous faith that regards humans as part of shizen (translated as nature, although there used to be no Japanese term that corresponds with the Western term nature). Here there is no distinction between human and kami (god) and that considers nonhuman beings as kami. The ethics of coexistence with nature further developed among the Japanese with the introduction of the Buddhist idea that every living being possesses the potential nature to become a Buddha (Teranishi, 2018). Teranishi explains that this ethic has nurtured peoples' sense of intimacy to nonhuman living beings and provided a base to consider human and nature (shizen) as not being separated but being connected. Exploring human-nonhuman relationships in countries with Buddhist influences would provide an interesting comparison to make. 

Findings in this study suggest an avenue to consider the socio-cultural context when communicating food ethics to consumers. Extension of moral concerns to nonhumans has been one of the approaches developed in environmental ethics. The underlying idea is to consider humans as moral agents who are obliged to be responsible for moral receivers, nonhumans (Sharma, 2020). The moral argument, however, may not always be effective in places where the idea of responsibility and obligations are perceived differently. In Western societies, it is assumed that people have freedom and autonomy to make decisions so that they are supposed to be responsible for the consequences. On the other hand, for example in Japan, the term responsibility (sekinin) refers to a moral obligation to keep the harmony of society (Coulmas, 1993). While promoting moral argument in Japan may not be as successful as in Western societies, stories of care may be a better way forward. Japanese people tend to value “care” put in the work, so seed saving farmers’ stories about care and the connection that they developed with their plants may attract consumers from a health and food quality perspective. 

The concept of care ethics is explored by more-than-human scholars to describe interdependency and relationality between humans and nonhumans in an attempt to overcome dichotomous thinking of subject / object and human /nature (e.g. Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017). Puig de la Bellacasa provides a story of soil-human relations, which is similar to that of Japanese farmers in my interviews. However, there seems to be a difference between care ethics expressed by Japanese farmers and care ethics explored in more-than-human literature. Japanese farmers’ care was based on direct interactions between farmers and plants – the physical connection was crucial. On the other hand, while more-than human studies often contain stories of a physical encounter with nonhumans, it does not necessarily require a direct physical connection to nonhumans. More-than-human care ethics rather require an imagination of being in the world together with nonhumans, supported by the idea of extended morality for distanced invisible others (e.g. Beacham, 2018). A question here for Japanese food ethics is if such imagination is achievable without having a direct physical connection to nonhumans or with the absence of Western ideas of moral and responsibility.




I would like to thank Dr. Christoph D. D. Rupprecht for his insights and support. This research was funded by the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN: a constituent member of NIHU), FEAST Project (No.14200116). 



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Description of interviewed farmers.

  Name Description
Organic farmers


A male farmer in his 60s with more than 30 years of experience of seed saving, operating in Kyusyu region. Sells products mainly for individual consumers taking a box-scheme. Converted from high-input agriculture to organic agriculture. 

A male farmer in his 30s operating in Kyusyu region with less than 10 years’ experience in seed saving. Came from a non-farming household and became an organic farmer after working in Tokyo. Takes a box-scheme. Informally learns from Masaki.

I carried out in-depth interviews with Katsu by applying the Trajectory Equifinality Approach.

C A male organic farmer in his 20s, living in Kyushu region. Under training of organic farming when I interviewed. Planning to become independent. Informally learns from Masaki.
D A male organic farmer in his 30s operating in Tohoku region with less than 10 years’ experience in seed saving. Transferred to organic farming after working in Tokyo. Sells products to restaurant chefs.
E A male organic farmer in his 30s who operates farmer’s restaurants in Kanto region. Worked at an agricultural corporation before turning into an organic farmer. 
F A male organic farmer in his 20s living in Kanto region. Inherited grandparents’ farm. Learnt farming and seed saving from Tatsuya. 
Lifestyle farmers G A male lifestyle farmer in his 60s from Kyusyu region. Engaged in natural farming for nearly 30 years. 

A male lifestyle farmer in his 50s living in Kansai region. Practicing natural farming for nearly 15 years. Works full-time.

I carried out in-depth interviews with Katsu by applying the Trajectory Equifinality Approach.

I A female lifestyle farmer in her 50s living in Kyushu region. Ten years of farming, started natural farming three years ago. Works full-time.
J A female lifestyle farmer, probably in her 30s or 40s, living in Kyushu region. Practicing natural farming for four years. Works full-time