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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Aquaponics for Japan: Challenging the Hegemony of an Anachronistic Agricultural Bureaucracy

July 19, 2012 |

The following guest post was written by Aragon St-Charles, who founded Japan Aquaponics in June of 2011 after the great earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Through this social enterprise, St-Charles aims to introduce and promote aquaponics in Japan to increase food security and insure against disruptions to the food system.

Aragon St-Charles, Founder of Japan Aquaponics

Agriculture in Japan offers a tantalizing glimpse into the past, into an era of millions of small home farms of less than a few acres providing for family sustenance and hopefully a little extra to take to market. Given the high tech reputation of Japan this may seem to be at odds with our perception of the country, and yet with the average farmer and his wife (both heartwarmingly sharing the back-breaking work) being nearly 70 years old and farming less than 5 acres of land, the dichotomy is very real.

The current state of agriculture in Japan

JA, or Japan Agriculture, is a nationwide cooperative that has very strong links to government, and an even stronger stranglehold over agriculture in Japan. The vast majority of farmers are reliant on JA not only to purchase the produce they grow, but also to provide them with loans, banking and insurance. JA even provides them with fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.

The pressure to conform to JA’s proscribed methods of farming may account for the fact that according to the USDA, “Phosphatic fertilizer application in 2006, for instance, was over four times higher per hectare in Japan than in the United States. Nitrogenous fertilizer application was two times higher in Japan, and potassium fertilizers were applied almost three times as heavily in Japan. Data show that usage of most individual insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides tends to decline over time. However, Japan uses seven times as much pesticide per hectare as the United States.”

The tableau of mist-enveloped, quaint thatched farms overlooking terraced rice paddies in a picturesque mountain hamlet may evoke warm sentiments, but the reality is much starker: tiny farms managed by severely aging farming communities using anachronistic and unsustainable farming practices, combined with rural depopulation and farmers supported almost exclusively by generous government subsidies and by punitive import tariffs. It is estimated that without import tariffs – 800% on rice for example – significant numbers of Japanese farmers would be swept away in just a few short seasons, overcome by the tide of foreign imports into a country which is already one of the highest net importers of food in the world. The TPP (Trans-Pacific Protocol) is likely to further exacerbate these very real fears and is being resisted vociferously by agricultural communities.

Whispers of change

Japan is a resourceful country, however, and individuals here spend more on food per capita income than most other countries. $300 for a pair of melons is not quite the norm, but it is not that far off as high-quality vegetables, fruits and specialty produce continue to command high prices in Tokyo’s high-class stores.

Last year’s earthquake, subsequent tsunami and the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant quite literally shook up the traditional way that consumers think in Japan. There was an increase in awareness about where our food comes from, and more importantly, how it is grown. This groundswell of awareness is some years behind the movements seen in the US or the UK for example, but it is a beginning that might perhaps have been difficult to imagine just 2 years ago.

Hydroponics growers are touting their completely closed systems and proudly pronouncing to consumers: “Don’t wash our lettuce! Our laboratory conditions (it is hard to call them farms) are cleaner than the tap water – so don’t dirty our produce by washing it!” It may not be the best message to send as the lettuces are still produced with a wide array of chemicals, but it is a step in the right direction. It shows innovation and a desire to implement high-density farming projects in an urban environment (important when you consider how little available farmland there is in Japan, and how government restrictions make it almost impossible to either sell or buy farmland here.) It pushes the conversation about agriculture further down the road and helps to educate consumers.

Interestingly, trading houses and companies almost exclusively run hydroponics facilities in Japan – there are very few private individuals invested in hydroponics. This may be unsurprising when you consider that according to private research conducted by a hydroponics think-tank in Japan, almost 90% of hydroponic facilities post annual losses. Barriers to entry are also very high; in addition to high initial capital costs, it is difficult to obtain farming licenses here and so most facilities choose to register instead as “plant factories”.

The last year has seen a number of high-profile individuals and investors look towards the ailing agricultural sector with an eye toward alternative agricultural technologies. Companies are also looking at new technologies to reinvigorate the sector, raise quality and profitability, and encourage younger generations to return to farming.  Projects such as Pasona02, an underground hydroponics facility in the headquarters of an influential recruiting firm in the heart of Tokyo, represent a sampling of what is in the air in Japan.

Time for Aquaponics?

Aquaponics is almost unheard of in Japan. There are no universities studying it, no companies actively testing or promoting it, and no backyard aquaponics movement to speak of; and yet when Japan Aquaponics was set up in the aftermath of last year’s terrible events, we believed that in the whisperings of change we were hearing a harmonic that resonated with the introduction of aquaponics in this country. Fukushima showed everyone how fragile our environment was, and how quickly our food production could be disrupted, and how we needed viable alternatives to ensure food security.

Japan Aquaponics quickly established itself and we have been focusing on several different projects since the founding of the company. The first aim is one of promotion and education; we have been speaking to individuals, schools, community groups and government officials to discuss the application of aquaponics to agricultural problems. Results have been generally positive and the idea of raising fish and plants together in a closed loop system has garnered interest from a variety of sources. This part of our mission is likely to be hard, and overcoming entrenched apathy to change will be slow.

Japan Aquaponics has also focused on Tohoku, and on trying to assist communities in areas that were affected by the disaster. We have spent nearly 3 weeks in the affected areas and will be returning at the end of July / beginning of August to start installing a small system in a community centre in one of the worst affected areas. This system is designed to show residents, and children of the area that there are alternative potential ways of farming – especially relevant if their farmland has been destroyed by the tsunami. We are still working hard to gather donations to install a small commercial system in this area for locals to provide for themselves and to prove the technology can help them.

Finally, Japan Aquaponics is supporting the grassroots aquaponics movement in Japan by providing kits, equipment and consulting services for anyone who is interested in aquaponics. To date we have installed, or supported more than 15 projects, and all profits have been donated back into the projects in Tohoku.

We believe that aquaponics has a future in Japan. Despite the many obstacles to overcome there is evidence to suggest that changing attitudes of consumers, a new focus on quality and sustainability combined with a consumer base that has shown a willingness to pay high prices for high-quality produce leads us to conclude that aquaponics could be commercially viable in this country.

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