Lonely furrow: Little pay dirt for organic farming in Japan

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Yuya Shibakai work at his organic vegetable farm in Inzai, Chiba prefecture. The Japanese farmer produces organic lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and other vegetables. (AFP)
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A worker prepares packages of organic vegetables at a farm in Inzai, Chiba prefecture. The market for “bio” or organic food in Japan is estimated to be worth just over $1 billion. (AFP)
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Yuya Shibakai works at his organic vegetable farm in Inzai, Chiba prefecture. (AFP)
Updated 06 June 2018

Lonely furrow: Little pay dirt for organic farming in Japan

  • While a craze for healthy eating has fueled lucrative sales around the world, the market for “bio” or organic food in Japan is estimated to be worth just over $1 billion.
  • One of the problems faced by shops offering organic food is a Japanese obsession with how fruit and vegetables look and are packaged

INZAI, Japan: Yuya Shibakai sometimes feels he is plowing a lonely furrow.
The Japanese farmer produces organic lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and other vegetables for a market that has tasted nothing like the success of the sector in other advanced economies.
On his farm outside Tokyo, the 32-year-old doggedly trudges along a line of lettuces, pulling up weeds by hand.
Shibakai says it is a “daily struggle to find ways to make a profit using a system you could call inefficient, where you have to pull all the weeds out by hand.”
“We need a different supply system in Japan, a sustainable structure for farmers that would also change the way our profession is seen,” added Shibakai, who took over the business from his parents in 2009.
Organic farming occupied just 0.5 percent of Japan’s entire arable area in 2016. The country hopes to double this by 2019, Akimi Uenaka, an official in charge of organic farming at the agriculture ministry, said.
However, Uenaka admitted the development of the sector in Japan was “slow,” as weeding and pest control take more time and organic farms struggle to produce a “stable” output due to technical limitations.
Shibakai is one of 12,000 organic farmers in the whole country, according to statistics from 2010, the last time the agriculture ministry collected figures from the nascent sector.
While a craze for healthy eating has fueled lucrative sales around the world, the market for “bio” or organic food in Japan is estimated to be worth just over $1 billion.
The world’s third-largest economy has a mere fraction of the global market of around $90 billion and is dwarfed by the US ($45 billion), Germany ($11 billion), France ($8 billion) and China ($7 billion).
Moreover, while even most of these mature markets are enjoying solid growth, the sector in Japan is stagnating.
One of the few players to dip a toe into the market is French organic retailer “Bio c’Bon,” which has had a presence in Japan since the end of 2016 and just opened its third shop in Tokyo.
A dearth of large-scale farming means the company has to work with around 200 individual farms for its fruit and vegetables and even import other goods — for example raspberries from Mexico, as well as organic wines and cheeses from France.
One of the problems faced by shops offering organic food is a Japanese obsession with how fruit and vegetables look and are packaged.
“Especially during the week, Japanese customers tend to shop very quickly and grab pre-packaged and pre-weighed goods,” said Pascal Gerbert-Gaillard, Asia director at Bio c’Bon.
“We are working to find a good balance between our brand and Japanese consumption habits,” he added.
As an example, he says his staff minutely check for any tiny imperfections in their vegetables and remove them from sale. They are donated to staff members.
Gerbert-Gaillard said organic food is gradually finding a market among “Japanese aged between 30 and 40, especially mothers, and expats.”
The firm has ambitious plans to grow its “minuscule offerings” by expanding to “around 30 shops in Tokyo and its suburbs before the 2020 Olympics,” he said.
But well-established smaller players have already found that organic food can be slow to gain traction.
Rika Oishi founded her organic firm SuperOrganic seven years ago, hoping to capitalize on a boom in demand — especially from foreigners — for “healthy” food after the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear meltdown.
“I have noticed a bit more interest down the years from consumers and firms, but it has not yet become a way of life,” she said.


UK’s Queen Elizabeth II beams as she returns to Ascot after COVID-19 hiatus

Updated 20 June 2021

UK’s Queen Elizabeth II beams as she returns to Ascot after COVID-19 hiatus

  • Dressed in a mint-green outfit and matching hat, the queen was applauded by the crowd
  • She smiled broadly as she inspected one of her horses, after it finished a close second

LONDON: Queen Elizabeth II was smiling broadly as she attended the final day of the Ascot races on Saturday, where environmental protesters urged the monarch to press politicians to act faster against climate change.
The 95-year-old queen, a keen racing fan and racehorse owner, has attended Ascot almost every year of her seven-decade reign. She was absent last year, when the event was held without spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic. Her return came two months after the death of her husband, Prince Philip, at 99.


Dressed in a mint-green outfit and matching hat, the queen was applauded by the crowd as she arrived to cheer on four horses she owns that were racing on Saturday. She smiled broadly as she inspected one of her horses, Reach for the Moon, after it finished a close second.
The annual racing meeting west of London is a heady mix of horses, extravagant headwear, fancy dress, champagne and strawberries with cream.
Protesters from environmental group Extinction Rebellion unfurled a banner reading “Racing to Extinction” at the racecourse on Saturday. The group said four women glued themselves to their banner and chained themselves to the fence in a protest intended to be seen by the queen. She was not nearby at the time.


Jordan battles to save rare tiny Dead Sea carp

Updated 18 June 2021

Jordan battles to save rare tiny Dead Sea carp

Jordan is racing against time to save a tiny rare fish from extinction as falling water levels partly triggered by global warming threaten to dry up its last habitat.
The Dead Sea toothcarp — scientific name Aphanius dispar richardsoni — has been on the red list of the International Union for Conversation of Nature since 2014.
The IUCN warns that the “exploitation of spring waters and climate change” are major threats facing the four-centimeter-long, silver-colored fish.
“This fish is threatened with extinction at the global level. It is endemic here and does not exist elsewhere,” said Ibrahim Mahasneh, the manager of the fish’s last home, the Fifa Nature Reserve.
Lying some 140 kilometers (85 miles) southwest of Amman in the Jordan Rift Valley and 60 kilometers south of the Dead Sea, the area is the lowest wet reserve on Earth.
Established in 2011, the reserve consists of some 20 square kilometers. It is located some 426 meters (1,400 feet) below sea level and is managed by an independent body, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN).
Even though the Hashemite kingdom is primarily desert, this area of wetlands is criss-crossed by streams and is home to a variety of plant and wildlife species including birds.
“We have a plan to save and breed this fish... to create a natural habitat for it to breed and at the same time to mitigate the existing threat,” added Mahasneh.
“The reserve is the last home for this endangered species of fish,” said environmental researcher Abdallah Oshoush who works in the reserve.


The male fish also has a streak of blue along its sides, while the female has incomplete black stripes.
It is not known how many still remain, but “monitoring programs have warned of a clear decline in the presence of this fish in recent years,” Oshoush said.
Among the environmental threats causing numbers to drop is the “lowering water level due to low rainfall and the change in its environment, as well as the presence of other fish that feed on it and its eggs.”
Researchers are now preparing to open an artificial pond just for the toothcarp so they can grow safely and their eggs are not devoured by predators. Each season, a female produces around 1,000 eggs.
The aim is then to release the young fish back into the natural environment.
“In Jordan live two unique species of fish that do not exist anywhere else in the world. These are our precious treasures and they must be preserved for our ecosystem,” said RSCN spokesperson Salem Nafaa.
Two decades ago the RSCN succeeded in saving the endangered Aphanuis Sirhani fish in its only habitat in the Azraq reserve, about 110 kilometers (65 miles) east of Amman.
It got its scientific name from the Wadi Sirhan, which extends from the Arabian Peninsula to Azraq, but is commonly known in English as the Azraq killifish.
Only about six centimeters long, it is also silver but the female is spotted while the male has black stripes.

“In the year 2000, there were no more than 500 Azraq killifish in the oasis, which means it was on the verge of extinction,” said Nashat Hmaidan, the director of the RSCN Biodiversity Monitoring Center.
“It was declining sharply, and it reached just 0.02 percent of the number of fish in the oasis,” he said, blaming other predatory fish and migratory birds as well as a fall in water levels.
The RSCN studied the fish’s life cycle and determined it needed shallow water to lay eggs, and should be isolated from other species for the best chance of survival.
“We collected 20 fish over two years and put them in a concrete pond designated for breeding.”
After the first fish were released back into the waters the team saw its presence had increased from 0.02 percent to nearly 50 percent. It “was a great success,” he added.
Twenty years on, the Azraq killifish accounts for almost 70 percent of the fish in the waters. But he cautioned the goal now is that the numbers should “never drop below 50 percent.”
Hazem Hrisha, the director of the Azraq Wetland reserve, highlighted its important biodiversity, with more than 133 plant species and more than 163 species of invertebrates.
The reserve “is located on the most important bird migration paths,” he said, adding two thirds of the bird species found in the kingdom had been recorded in Azraq.

Billionaire admits cheating to beat Indian chess champ Viswanathan Anand

Updated 15 June 2021

Billionaire admits cheating to beat Indian chess champ Viswanathan Anand

  • Online brokerage firm founder Nikhil Kamath admitted to using “computers” to gain the upper hand

NEW DELHI: A young Indian billionaire has admitted to cheating in a shock win over five-time chess world champion Viswanathan Anand, saying it was for “fun and charity.”
Online brokerage firm founder Nikhil Kamath took on Anand during an online charity event on Sunday and caused quite a stir when he came out on top in a 30-minute rapid game.
The next day he admitted to using “computers” and the help of “people analyzing the game” to gain the upper hand.
“It is ridiculous that so many are thinking that I really beat Vishy sir in a chess game, that is almost like me waking up and winning a 100mt race with Usain Bolt,” Kamath tweeted.
“In hindsight, it was quite silly as I didn’t realize all the confusion that can get caused due to this. Apologies.”
Anand, acclaimed as the greatest player India has produced, played — and beat — a number of celebrity guests including cricketer Yuzvendra Chahal and Bollywood actor Aamir Khan during the event.
The 51-year-old grandmaster appeared to play down the whole affair.
“Yesterday was a celebrity simul for people to raise money It was a fun experience upholding the ethics of the game,” he wrote on Twitter.
“I just played the position (on the) board and expected the same from everyone.”
India’s chess federation saw the incident as violating the spirit of the game.
“We don’t expect anybody to get help from computers, at the national and state level we are following the protocols,” the federation’s secretary Bharat Chauhan told local media.
“(Kamath) was doing it for charity, he shouldn’t have done. This is really bad,” he added.
Anand won his first world title aged 30, and enjoyed great rivalries with the likes of Russian champions Gary Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Soviet-born Israeli Boris Gelfand.


Jill Biden, Duchess of Cambridge learn bunny care on tour

Updated 11 June 2021

Jill Biden, Duchess of Cambridge learn bunny care on tour

  • Biden and the former Kate Middleton visited with 4- and 5-year-olds who attend Connor Downs Academy in Hayle
  • “It’s a huge honor to have you in the United Kingdom,” the duchess said just before the discussion

HAYLE, England: US first lady Jill Biden and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, learned about bunny care Friday as they toured a preschool during a joint outing in southwest England.
They also took part in a talk about early childhood education with experts from the UK and some from the United States who joined the discussion via Zoom.
“It’s a huge honor to have you in the United Kingdom,” the duchess said just before the discussion. She thanked Biden — a longtime English teacher — for her interest in early education, also a topic of interest for the duchess, who has three young children with husband Prince William.


Biden, 70, and the former Kate Middleton, 39, visited with 4- and 5-year-olds who attend Connor Downs Academy in Hayle. The school works with children who have experienced trauma. It also has outdoor classrooms where children plant vegetables and flowers and tend to rabbits.
Biden carried a bowl of carrots when the women went outside to see Storm, one of several bunnies housed in pens, and handed the bowl to a group of kids so they could feed him.
Before the indoor roundtable, Biden said she was glad to visit the school.
“I met some wonderful teachers and principals and most of all the children, who were so inspiring and well behaved,” the first lady said. “I couldn’t get over it.”
She is traveling with her husband, President Joe Biden, who is attending a Group of Seven summit of leaders from the world’s largest economies that opened Friday in Carbis Bay.
She thanked the news media for covering the appearance “because early childhood education is so important to lay the foundation for all of our students.”


Both women took notes during the discussion, which centered on child mental health and the importance of early education in childhood development.
As they departed, reporters asked Biden if she had sought advice from the duchess on meeting Queen Elizabeth II, which the Bidens are set to do at a summit reception later Friday, followed by tea with the monarch on Sunday at Windsor Castle.
“No, I didn’t,” the first lady replied. “We’ve been busy. Were you not in that room. We were talking education.”
Jill Biden is scheduled to head back to Washington after meeting the queen, while the president continues on to Brussels for a NATO summit and to Switzerland for a highly anticipated one-on-one summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.


Top Swiss court rejects climate activists’ appeal over tennis stunt

Updated 11 June 2021

Top Swiss court rejects climate activists’ appeal over tennis stunt

  • ‘At the time of their action, there was no current and immediate danger’ under Swiss law, the court said
  • In September appeals court found them guilty of "trespassing", a ruling upheld by Federal Court on Friday

GENEVA: Switzerland’s highest court on Friday rejected an appeal by environmental activists who were sentenced for trespassing after invading a bank to play tennis dressed as Roger Federer.
The Federal Court dismissed the activists’ argument that their playful demonstration two and a half years ago was an emergency action justified by the climate crisis.
“At the time of their action, there was no current and immediate danger,” according to the definition under Swiss law, the court said in a statement.
In November 2018, the 12 activists entered a Credit Suisse branch in Lausanne to denounce Swiss tennis star Federer over his sponsorship deals with Switzerland’s second-biggest bank and its financing of fossil fuels.
In January last year, a lower court acquitted the 12 defendants, accepting their “state of necessity” legal argument, finding that they had acted legitimately in the face of the climate emergency.
But an appeals court reversed that verdict last September, heeding the view of the public prosecutor who urged judges to “practice law, not emotion,” according to Swiss news agency Keystone-ATS.
It found them guilty of “trespassing” — a ruling upheld by the Federal Court on Friday.
The activists immediately announced that they intended to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights, in defense of their “fundamental rights,” including the right to free expression and to demonstrate peacefully.
Laila Batou, a defense lawyer for one of the activists, slammed the decision and the court’s “lack of ambition,” according to Keystone-ATS.
“The Federal Court could have given a clear signal recognizing that global warming constitutes an imminent danger, but also that, in some situations, civil disobedience is necessary,” she told the news agency.
Instead, she said, the court “has ruled in favor of the powerful, the big corporations who can continue business as usual to the detriment of young people.”