In the city of Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, the mandarin orange is king. Prefectural officials offer business cards with a manga-esque character called “Mikyan,” that, on first glance, looks like a teddy bear (though with green leaves for ears). The figure can be seen in stores throughout the city. Ehime mandarin orange juice is now sold nationwide. In Matsuyama, one can buy everything from jam and salad dressing and pies to a mandarin orange-flavored liquor.
However, while business is good, some local merchants wonder about the possible consequences of warming due to climate change. “It’s possible climate change could mean other prefectures will find they can now grow mandarin oranges,” said Goro Takayama, a local merchant in Matsuyama whose shop sells products made from the fruit. “They could become strong competitors.”
Farmers do what they can to deal with climate change, but the effects of climate change have a ripple effect from farms to distributors to, ultimately, consumers.
“We are hearing many farmers say that the seasons are different from than what they have been used to. They also depend on farming advice from JA (the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives) and other farmers,” says Martin Frid of the Consumers Union of Japan. “But this can get confusing when the crops don’t grow as usual. It also creates price fluctuations, which affects consumers, while shops and restaurants have trouble stocking the usual vegetables and fruits as climate change gets worse.”
In 2007, following a U.N. report on worldwide climate change, Japan’s agriculture ministry released a study that summarized the impact of global warming on Japan and noted that certain fruits such as apples, mandarin oranges and grapes would be strongly affected. Assuming that by 2060 the temperature in and around Japan will have risen by an average of 3 degrees Celsius, the ministry predicts that areas suitable for growing apples and mandarins will gradually move north. Mandarin oranges, normally associated with western Japan and Kyushu, could even be grown in the southern Tohoku coastal region, the ministry said.
The changes also mean that prefectures with larger populations, especially those with younger workers, could become the strongest competitors of rural prefectures. At the same time, with the number of traditional rural farmers declining and rapidly aging, thereby increasing the amount of uncultivated land nationwide, the government is making more efforts to get new players into the agricultural sector.
This includes the so-called business farmers. Japan wants to increase the percentage of farmland cultivated by business farmers (including those known in the U.S. and Europe as “big agriculture” — huge corporations involved in all aspects of agricultural production) from around 50 percent today to 80 percent by 2025. Under an agricultural ministry scheme, business farmers are envisioned to be certified as new farmers and community-based farm cooperatives. They will include individuals but also corporations.
This is not new. The number of corporation farms tripled between 2000 and 2015, and more than 7,000 corporate farms entered the sector after the revision of the Agricultural Land Act of 2009.
While one of the main aims of the program is to make use of farmland that is being abandoned for nonclimate change reasons, the government hopes that better management of the agriculture sector via the introduction of new players will also strengthen management efforts on currently cultivated lands to tackle a problem that is partially rooted in climate change — agricultural damage due to the foraging of wild animals. Over the past decade, the agriculture ministry estimates that crop damage to wild animals has ranged between ¥20 billion and ¥24 billion annually. The majority of losses are due to deer and wild boars.
The government’s response
Some of the steps that Japanese farmers have been advised to adapt to global warming are specific.
For example, the agricultural ministry has said that late planting and the direct sowing of rice can help prevent the occurrence of white immature kernels due to high temperatures during the ripening period. The Nikomaru rice variety was recommended for planting, as it’s hardier and produces fewer white immature kernels than other types.
Grapes are especially sensitive to changes in climate, and abnormal coloration of some grape varieties due to high temperatures is a danger, although the government recommends using Ishiji and Tamami grape varieties because they’re less sensitive to what is called “rind puffing,” which is caused by high temperatures during the ripening period.
More generally, the government is providing increased funding to the agriculture sector to make it more internationally competitive. While much of the funding is on promotional efforts or making different sectors more efficient, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has also recognized that if it is going to create a larger export market, it needs to provide funds to help farmers mitigate the effects of climate change.
Should the highly controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement ever become a reality, many domestic farmers are convinced that it would open up bigger markets in Asia for local products, even as opponents warn that what it will really mean is an increase in the number of huge corporations entering the agriculture sector and using practices that turn farms into factories. This could mean an increase the amount of carbon emissions, thus making the problem of climate change in Japan even worse.
In the meantime, tourists and residents in Japan continue to find themselves with a literal smorgasbord of food from the land and sea to choose from.
With the government announcing in late July that a new economic stimulus package worth more than ¥28 trillion will at least partially focus on new ways to increase farm exports, it’s clear expectations are that whatever happens to fruit, vegetables and seafood due to climate change in 20 or 30 years from now, they are presently viewed as an valuable international market, one that, on paper, is expected to grow in the coming years and potentially revitalize all of Japanese agriculture.
Unless, of course, Mother Nature, in the form of climate change, intervenes much faster, and much more severely, than current predictions indicate, reducing yields.
Hotter, longer summers and excessive rainfall in some areas and droughts in others that damage fruit and vegetable crops, warming coastal areas that are unsuitable for certain fish species, could mean a drastic decline in agricultural items that form the basis of of national and regional promotion campaigns.
If so, it’s possible to imagine a not-too-distant future in which hosts on food programs indicate their pleasure at sampling some now common local fare by exclaiming not oishii or umai but “mezurashi” (“What a rare find”).