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.


Black leopard mauls man who paid to have pictures taken

Updated 30 October 2020

Black leopard mauls man who paid to have pictures taken

DAVIE, Florida: A man was mauled by a captive black leopard in a backyard zoo in South Florida, wildlife officials said.
The man paid $150 for a “full contact experience” with the black leopard, which allowed him to play with it and take pictures, WPLG reported.
A report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says the incident happened Aug. 31 in Davie, which is near Fort Lauderdale.
The agency charged the owner with allowing full contact with an extremely dangerous animal and was cited for maintaining captive wildlife in an unsafe condition.
The owner runs a licensed animal sanctuary for rare and endangered animals at the home, WPLG reported.
The man was attacked as soon as he entered the leopard’s enclosure. The injuries were so severe that his scalp was “hanging from his head and his right ear was torn in half,” the report said.
He required multiple surgeries, according to the TV station.