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.


Badly injured street dog swaps India for English countryside

Updated 18 November 2020

Badly injured street dog swaps India for English countryside

  • Street dog badly injured after being run over by a train in the northern Indian state of Haryana last October

NEW DELHI: With a wagging tail, an Indian street dog that lost its front legs in a train accident headed Wednesday for a new life in the English countryside.
The three-year-old mutt was found “covered in blood” and badly injured after being run over by a train at Faridabad in the northern Indian state of Haryana last October.
A railways constable took the wounded bitch to a local shelter that looks after some of the thousands of stray dogs, cows and monkeys maimed on India’s treacherous railways and roads every year.
“It is almost impossible to save such a badly injured dog,” veterinarian Mahesh Verma said in a graphic video shared by the People for Animals Trust that named the pooch Rocky.
“There was a lot of bleeding... we arranged a healthy dog and transfused blood.”
Vets had to amputate the forelegs, leaving the dog with stumps. Her back legs were also badly injured.
But the dog – although not named after the famous “Rocky” Sylvester Stallone movie – nevertheless battled as hard as the underdog boxer to recover, using her chin for balance as she hobbled about.
The rescue organization’s video about her plight went viral, attracting the attention of the global dog rescue group Wild at Heart Foundation.
They found her a home in the rural Cotswolds region of south-west England, while an Indian living in London paid for new artificial legs.
In July Rocky took her first steps on her new limbs, made by a leading doctor in Jaipur, and over several months gradually learned to walk again.
Rocky boarded a plane in New Delhi early Wednesday bound for London, where she is due to be collected by the foundation and her new owner.
She appeared to be taking everything in her shaky stride.
“She has always been fond of traveling, so I don’t think she realized she was going away from us. She was happy, wagging her tail as we said goodbye,” Ravi Dubey from the People for Animals Trust told AFP.
“We miss her already. Everyone is looking at the stories published about her yesterday and watching her old videos and photos. We are at the shelter home right now and not seeing her in her usual spot is heartbreaking.”
An estimated 30 million stray dogs roam India’s streets.
“In India, pets are often abandoned and abused. We are very happy that Rocky will have a safe and open space,” said Dubey.
“She made it,” Dubey said, hailing the animal’s “incredible resilience, strength and spirit to live.”
“She’s a fighter.”