Toyota, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Sony. Japanese brands are present everywhere in our lives, but Japanese agriculture and horticulture are less competitive and that is where the Netherlands can help.

Minister Kamp opens symposium
Summed up, this was the opening of Minister of Economic Affairs Henk Kamp at a crowded horticultural seminar in Tokyo on Wednesday, November 11th. The seminar was one of the highlights of the visit of Prime Minister Rutte and Minister Kamp to Japan in early November with a parallel trade mission in its wake. The accompanying horticultural delegation consisted of thirty companies and was the largest ever to visit the land of the rising sun.

Tomatoes in Tokyo supermarket (around € 3 per tray)

Greenhouse complexes
What Japanese agriculture looks like in the vicinity of Tokyo, the minister could see with his own eyes from a train on the opening day of his visit. For almost an hour, the trip first went through the urban clod which is Tokyo, then half an hour through tunnels in a mountain setting and then some time through a built-up valley where agricultural activity was scarce and small in all cases. Travel destination: Hokuto City, with the greenhouse of Koppert Cress and its Japanese partner Murakami Farm located nearby. Here the micro-vegetables are grown that Koppert Cress owner Rob Baan has domestically made a friend of chefs.

Japan trade mission
The Japanese market is an attractive one: micro-vegetables fit really well in local cuisine. More important perhaps is the attention that the Japanese consumer gives to the relationship between food and health and the receptive attitude of the government towards health claims. For decades, aging has been a government focus: that people grow old is a given - and nowhere in the world people become as old as in Japan - but to ensure that people also age healthily is something that needs to be encouraged and this happens through the attention to food. Here Koppert Cress’ micro vegetables fit right in.

Working with contract growers

On opening day Minister Kamp and the business delegation also visited a greenhouse that produces tomatoes for tomato processor Kagome. The company, founded in 1899, works with thirty contract growers throughout Japan and has ten modern greenhouses of its own, totaling 50 hectares. The fresh tomato market has a volume of 625,000 tonnes, which equates to a per capita consumption of less than 5 kilos. That is low compared to countries in the region.

Kagome: fresh brand tomato, ketchup and juices
Kagome markets tomatoes under its own brand and positions them as highly suitable for cooking, as high in glutamate (or "umami," the fifth taste) and with a high lycopene content. Kagome doesn’t have to connect it to any health claim because the consumer through television or magazines already knows that lycopene is healthy. For the expansion of its production Kagome is already doing a lot of business with Dutch companies. With an average price of € 2.50 per kilo, there is still plenty of room for growth.

At the end of the program the business delegation visited another tomato greenhouse in Tochigi prefecture, north of Tokyo. Here more pink tomatoes were grown that form the bulk of the market. Not much sorting was as yet done, showing the efficiency improvement that can still be made. Minister Kamp said it on the aforementioned seminar and brought it up in a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, together with Prime Minister Rutte: Japanese agriculture needs the boost of modern horticulture.

Since the Uruguay Round the normally conservative Japanese politicians experience any form of trade liberalization as a threat to farmers and the viability of rural areas. The agreement in early October this year on the Trans-Pacific Partnership is another chapter herein, which will probably be followed by a Free Trade Agreement between Japan and the EU.

Aging is a more serious threat in rural areas, however. The average age of Japanese farmers is nearing 70 and his fields are typically 1.5 hectares. The number of farmers that depend on agriculture for their primary income has decreased to 200,000 in recent decades, less than 10% of the total number of farmers - or what passes for it as manager of a piece of family land.

Gagging the sector
Legislation intended to protect and coddle Japanese farmers in reality is gagging the sector. It is difficult to merge lots, companies are not permitted to own land, buildings - meaning greenhouses – cannot be built on former rice fields. A seemingly bottomless subsidy fund keeps market forces out. The social-cultural and historical attachment to family land also doesn’t help agricultural reforms.

It is clear that the development of a modern horticultural sector can be the key to revitalization, to new dynamics for large parts of the Japanese countryside. Japanese consumers prefer homegrown vegetables, which they consider to be safer and tastier than imports from China or Korea. Japan is already the largest importer of agricultural products in the world. Modern horticulture could bring entrepreneurship to rural areas where subsidy dependency is high and would stimulate young people to grab opportunities in food production for a well-off urban population.

Trade Mission visits tomato grower in Tochigi

Lack of enabling environment
For decades Japanese delegations have come to look at the Dutch agro-wonder, that small country that succeeds in being the second world exporter of quality products. Several Dutch horticultural projects have been realized in Japan, and there are a couple in the pipeline. What is lacking is the enabling environment to help the modernization of horticulture. Regulations prevent large-scale horticulture from being embraced to modernize the countryside, to increase self-sufficiency and to allow farmers' income increase.

Breakthrough imminent?
Perhaps the breakthrough is now close and the visit of the trade mission well-timed. Prime Minister Abe visited Westland after the Nuclear Safety Summit in The Hague in 2014, and in early October, the Japanese Permanent Parliamentary Committee for Agriculture visited then State Secretary Dijksma. The breakthrough would have to be effected by initiating a large-scale horticultural sector, and ideally by really stimulating large-scale horticulture.

Characteristic agriculture in the Yamanashi prefecture

True collaboration could again make the Japanese agricultural sector one of growth, with opportunities for young people. "We want to learn from you," for many years has been the motto of visiting horticultural delegations, "we want to share experience." After their return home, there would be a lot of looking and studying but not much would be done. Minister Kamp: "To set up horticultural complexes, Japan does not have to invent the wheel – we’ll roll it right over. Cooperation will contribute to further development of the agrofood cluster in Japan and the Netherlands. Japanese companies are finding their Dutch partners and so are government and research institutions. Because the innovation in our horticulture is also much helped by Japanese know-how in the field of robots, sensors and packaging."

Source: Freek Vossenaa, Agro Berichten Buitenland [Agro reports Abroad]