Restriction of non-farmer members’ use of agricultural co-operatives’ services has become one of the main concerns for the ongoing discussions on agricultural co-ops reform. Such restriction would weaken the overall ability of the Japan agricultural co-op group and threaten the basis of livelihood which farmers and local residents depend on. The government must keep in mind that destroying infrastructure in rural regions supported by JAs goes against its goal of revitalizing local areas.
The deregulation action plan approved by the Cabinet in June last year states that the government will consider creating a rule concerning non-farmer members’ use of JAs’ services in comparison with farmer-members.
JAs offer comprehensive package of services including agricultural business support, credit and mutual aid financing and agricultural materials procurement. Divisions in charge of different services cooperate to strengthen the overall business foundations. JAs have contributed to local communities through supporting members’ lives and offering social welfare services for the elderly, such as nursing care insurance. Non-farmer members’ use of JAs’ credit and mutual aid service helps stabilize the co-operatives’ operations.
As profits from JAs’ credit and mutual aid services are used for supervising farmers, it can be said that non-farmer members are also contributing to promotion of agriculture. In return, they can gain access to stable supply of safe, fresh farm products produced locally and other services including harvesting and tasting events, farmers’ stores and nursing care.
JAs and non-farmer members have developed mutually-beneficial relationship with each other. That is why non-farmer members are called supporters of rural agriculture. Rural agriculture can develop further if there are more non-farmer members. If their use of JAs’ services were restricted, other private enterprises will take over the credit and mutual aid business for non-farmer members. The companies would either invest the non-farmer members’ money or keep them as reserves, and there is no guarantee that the funds will be used to promote local agriculture.
Japan has become a society with a declining population. JAs are playing an important role to maintain local communities through offering a variety of services such as sales of food, fuel and other materials necessary for everyday lives, delivery for people who have difficulty doing shopping, medical and health promotion activities, social welfare for the elderly and nursing care. They are functioning as part of an infrastructure for the communities. Should the central or local governments replace and maintain such functions, it would cost taxpayers a lot of money.
JAs will not withdraw from areas where their members exist. They offer members in depopulated mountainous areas the same services as they do to members in metropolitan areas. Co-operatives’ principle of mutual aid is subject to all the residents in the community, regardless of whether they are farmers or not.
In the JA group’s self-reform plan, non-farmer members are regarded as partners who help develop agriculture and local economies together with the group. Opinions and demands of non-farmer members and local residents should be taken into account in developing the farm sector. The agriculture industry is not made up only of full-time farmers, but has developed through support and cooperation of part-time farmers and local residents. Restricting the use of JAs’ services by certain members means dividing residents, the move which could destroy agriculture and rural villages endlessly.
In order to develop rural economies, it is necessary to strengthen the overall ability of JAs to support the lives of local residents. The main focus of the JA group’s self-reform should be to facilitate non-farmer members’ further participation in JAs’ business operations rather than restricting it.
(Feb. 4, 2015)