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.


Music icon Cher meets Pakistan PM ahead of elephant’s move

Updated 27 November 2020

Music icon Cher meets Pakistan PM ahead of elephant’s move

  • The famed singer has for years campaigned for Kaavan the elephant and is helping pay for his move
  • Cher tweeted that she thanked Khan “For Making It Possible For Me To Take Kaavan To Cambodia”

ISLAMABAD: American pop icon Cher met Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday ahead of the relocation of an elephant from Islamabad’s dilapidated zoo to a Cambodian sanctuary.
The famed singer, who has for years campaigned for Kaavan the elephant and is helping pay for his move, arrived in the Pakistan capital this week to see the animal before the flight to Cambodia on Sunday.
“Appreciating her efforts in retiring Kaavan to an elephant sanctuary, the prime minister thanked Cher for her campaign and role in this regard,” a statement from Khan’s office read.
Cher tweeted that she thanked Khan “For Making It Possible For Me To Take Kaavan To Cambodia.”
The plight of Kaavan — an overweight, 35-year-old bull elephant — has drawn international condemnation and highlighted the woeful state of Islamabad’s zoo, where conditions are so bad a judge in May ordered all the animals to be moved.
A team of vets and experts from Four Paws, an Austria-based animal welfare group, has spent months working with Kaavan to get him ready for the journey to Cambodia.
Experts have trained Kaavan to enter a large metal crate that will be used to transport the animal to the airport.
Volunteers working with Kaavan say he responds well to music and singing, and Cher is expected to belt out a song or two for the elephant before he departs Islamabad.