January 31, 2006


Organic Farming and Organic Food in Japan

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.41 (January 2006)

As environmental awareness spreads, organic food and the organic farming that supplies its ingredients have been attracting a lot of attention due to their direct relationships to nutrition and the environment, both essential for our survival. It appears that the rest of the world regards Japan as one of the largest markets for organic products, after Europe and the U.S., owing to its large population, high level of income, and health orientation due to its aging population. Another factor is that Japan has already enacted laws on organic farming and the labeling of its products. At the same time, Japan's food self-sufficiency ratio is only 40 percent based on calories, a bleak situation in terms of agricultural production.

What is the status of organic agricultural production in Japan? Let's start by looking at its history.

The origins of modern Japanese organic farming go back to the 1970s. Japan, like many countries in the EU, experienced the establishment of organizations formed of producers, consumers and researchers that aimed at promoting the practice and spread of organic farming. This was soon followed by the establishment of a number of organizations that offered memberships to consumers and producers in order to link them through distribution. Such organizations connecting consumers and producers formed something akin to a closed market for organic products. For a long time, most organic food in Japan was circulated exclusively within this closed market.

However, in the so-called open markets represented by conventional central markets and fruit and vegetable markets, farm produce was judged by appearance, differentiated according to size, and evaluated on the basis of its suitability for large-scale distribution. Not much attention was paid to the safety of the produce, or how it was grown.

At that time, there were no laws, and not even any guidelines, on organic farm production such as Japan now possesses. The term "organic" was applied indiscriminately, without any clear definition of what was truly organic farm produce as opposed to produce grown with partially organic fertilizers, or with reduced amounts of agrichemicals. There were no clear indications of what criteria were used or by how much agrichemicals were reduced.

This situation started to change after 1993 with the release of a set of guidelines on organic farm produce. With these guidelines, the truly organic producers could differentiate themselves from "organic fertilizer grown" farming, which, for example included dead leaves and compost as part of the fertilizer used, or from farmers who claimed to have "reduced agrichemical use." Despite this, guidelines without legal restrictions could not control inappropriate labeling. Both producers and consumers called for regulation of labels and advertising that was backed by law.

At the same time, certification of organic farm produce outside of Japan was also progressing. The EU in 1991 announced a unified Directive on organic farming, and EU countries legalized the Directive through their respective laws starting in 1993. In July 1999, the Codex Alimentarius Commission [which operates under the aegis of the FAO and WHO] formulated "Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Labeling and Marketing of Organically Produced Foods," through which it issued criteria for organic food production, systems for inspection and certification by third party agencies, and appropriate labeling and advertising of organic foods.

Following these trends, Japan also formulated a law on organic agricultural products in 2000, and implemented the Japanese Agricultural Standards of Organic Agricultural Products (JAS) in April 2001. Originally the law only applied to fruit, grain and vegetable products, but in October 2005 new provisions were added to cover livestock products.

With this background, organic produce presently accounts for only 0.1 percent of total farm production and cropland area in Japan. It accounts for only 1.65 percent for green tea, but this is the highest organically-grown percentage for any product, Organics account for a mere 0.12 percent of rice, Japan's leading crop (all data from FY 2004).

Although countries around the world see Japan as a potential growth market, organic farming in this country remains small-scale. One reason is insufficient recognition of the organic JAS standard. Five years have passed since the law that set up solid standards for organic farm products was introduced, but public recognition of the term "organic" is still low. According to the results of a questionnaire survey of visitors to an "Organic Festa" in Tokyo 2004, consumers actually prefer produce labeled "chemical-free," as opposed to "organic."

Another reason is the lack of backup systems for farmers. Organic farmers must observe and analyze what is happening to their croplands at all times and make necessary improvements based on thorough understanding of a wide-ranging set of factors. They must also have self management skills beyond those needed for conventional agriculture dependant on chemical fertilizers and agrichemicals, which tends to take a "follow instructions to automatically get the desired results" approach.

To become certified, organic farmers need to keep detailed production records. Compared with conventional farming, organic farming requires 1.6 times longer working hours, although yields are about 15 percent less (data from statistics on rice cropping in FY 2002 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries), Making it a very costly production method indeed. Especially during the transitional period when yields fluctuate, any and all support can be very helpful to farmers who are switching to organic farming.

These numbers may give the impression that Japanese organic farmers are having a hard time, but municipalities across the nation are making more efforts to support organic farmers every year. In a new national basic plan for food, agriculture and farming communities compiled by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, the ministry states that it will adopt measures and policies that focus on environmental conservation for the sustainable development of agriculture, with the aim of certifying 100,000 eco-farmers by the end of FY 2009. Responding to this, many prefectures, including Chiba, Hokkaido, Kochi, Shimane and Iwate, have adopted vigorous measures. In fact, 75,699 farmers have already been certified as eco-farmers, as of the end of March 2005 (Eco-farmers are certified farmers who have adopted plans to introduce highly sustainable farming methods based on the Law for Promoting the Introduction of Sustainable Agricultural Production Practices enacted in July 1999, which have been submitted to and approved by the governor of the prefecture).

For example, in January 2004 Abiko City in Chiba Prefecture established a local association to promote the consumption of locally-produced food. The association - a collective body of farmers, citizens, consumers, municipal government bodies and other parties - has held a series of symposiums on the future of agriculture in Abiko City and safe agricultural produce for citizens. It encourages farmers to grow agricultural produce that is good for consumers' health, the environment and nature, and also encourages citizens to consume locally-grown produce.

Specifically, it established guidelines for farmers and at the same time asked them to keep accurate track records of their produce. Based on these records, an assessment committee certifies the produce. The level of certification is indicated by three types of labels, gold, orange or green, according to the growing process. Gold labels are for produce grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides; orange labels are for produce grown with a 50 percent reduction in chemical fertilizers and pesticides approved by national and prefectural governments; and green labels are for produce grown by farmers who have attempted to eliminate use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, but were in fact able to reduce them by less than 50 percent. The certified and labeled produce is periodically sold in a public market. At first, a lot of the produce was labeled green, but currently 95 percent are labeled gold or orange, largely due to the effects of direct communication between farmers and consumers. In addition to its main activities, the association promotes training for volunteer agricultural helpers, supports agricultural technology and promotes food education by providing schools and welfare institutions with eco-friendly agricultural produce.

Consumers are also paying increasing attention to organic food. Organic food booths can always be found at food-related trade fairs. Organic food events, such as the "Organic Festa" mentioned above, are also on the rise, with growing numbers of participants every year. Increased consumer interest has given rise to licenses such as "organic concierge" and "vegetable sommelier."

As these local activities are linked together and the production of organic produce increases, the environment will be conserved and improved; locally-grown safe produce will be available for consumers; imports of agricultural produce and ingredients for chemical fertilizer will eventually become unnecessary; and sustainable agriculture will be established. Anyone can contribute to this movement--consumers by purchasing organic food, and farmers by engaging in organic agriculture. We strongly believe that the demand for and supply of eco-friendly farm products provided by organic agriculture will grow in Japan.

(Staff Writer Hiroyo Hasegawa)