Lonely furrow: Little pay dirt for organic farming in Japan

1 / 3
Yuya Shibakai work at his organic vegetable farm in Inzai, Chiba prefecture. The Japanese farmer produces organic lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and other vegetables. (AFP)
2 / 3
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)
3 / 3
Yuya Shibakai works at his organic vegetable farm in Inzai, Chiba prefecture. (AFP)
Updated 06 June 2018
0

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.


No politics please for Baghdad bikers aiming to unite Iraq

Updated 21 January 2019
0

No politics please for Baghdad bikers aiming to unite Iraq

  • The Iraq Bikers — who now number 380 — are men of all ages, social classes and various faiths
  • With his black bandana and goatee, the leader of the Baghdad pack, known as “Captain,” looks the epitome of the American biker-outlaw

BAGHDAD: Roaring along Baghdad’s highways, the “Iraq Bikers” are doing more than showing off their love of outsized motorcycles and black leather: they want their shared enthusiasm to help heal Iraq’s deep sectarian rifts.
Weaving in and out of traffic, only the lucky few ride Harley Davidsons — a rare and expensive brand in Iraq — while others make do with bikes pimped-up to look something like the “Easy Rider” dream machines.
“Our goal is to build a brotherhood,” said Bilal Al-Bayati, 42, a government employee who founded the club in 2012 with the aim of improving the image of biker gangs and to promote unity after years of sectarian conflict.
That is why the first rule of his bikers club is: you do not talk about politics.
“It is absolutely prohibited to talk politics among members,” Bayati told Reuters as he sat with fellow bikers in a shisha cafe, a regular hangout for members.
“Whenever politics is mentioned, the members are warned once or twice and then expelled. We no longer have the strength to endure these tragedies or to repeat them,” he said, referring to sectarian violence.
With his black bandana and goatee, the leader of the Baghdad pack, known as “Captain,” looks the epitome of the American biker-outlaw.
But while their style is unmistakably US-inspired — at least one of Bayati’s cohorts wears a helmet emblazoned with the stars and stripes — these bikers fly the Iraqi flag from the panniers of their machines.
The Iraq Bikers — who now number 380 — are men of all ages, social classes and various faiths. One of their most recent events was taking part in Army Day celebrations.
Some are in the military, the police and even the Popular Mobilization Forces, a grouping of mostly Shiite militias which have taken part in the fight to oust Islamic State from Iraq in the last three years.
“It is a miniature Iraq,” said member Ahmed Haidar, 36, who works with an international relief agency.
But riding a chopper through Baghdad is quite different from Route 101. The bikers have to slow down at the many military checkpoints set up around the city to deter suicide and car bomb attacks.
And very few can afford a top bike.
“We don’t have a Harley Davidson franchise here,” said Kadhim Naji, a mechanic who specializes in turning ordinary motorbikes into something special.
“So what we do is we alter the motorbike, so it looks similar ... and it is cheaper.”