Organic Movement Spreads from Farmyard to Department-Store Shelf
SEPTEMBER 2, 1996
Many supermarkets handle organiclly grown vegetables.
Concern About Food Safety
Organic products first appeared in Japan around the 1970s. The movement began as a part of civic activities, bringing together consumer groups that sought greater food safety and farmers. Bypassing established distribution channels, they delivered mainly vegetables and fruit directly from production areas. The movement spread, and now many products with the "organic" label are proving popular.
In tandem with this rise in popularity, organic agricultural products began to find their way into regular distribution systems from around the 1980s. Organic-produce shops began to appear, and department stores, supermarkets, and other outlets set aside special areas for them. One major supermarket now carries 23 kinds of organic products, after first handling vegetables grown with little or no chemicals in 1983. And a leading family restaurant chain has found that salads, curries, spaghettis, and other dishes liberally garnished with organically grown vegetables have become hits over the last few years.
Recently the range of products selling under the "organic" tag has broadened from fresh vegetables into several other categories. One department store has as many as 250 kinds of products made of organically produced and processed cotton on offer, including polo shirts, handkerchieves, and everyday items.
Organically produced imports are also increasing. From Norway comes salmon, without any antibacterial and synthetic additives and artificial coloring. From the United States come vegetables, including pumpkins and spinach, and from Latin America comes mate tea. The Japan External Trade Organization is encouraging further imports in this sector. Last summer, for example, in an effort to respond to consumer needs, it opened a fair for U.S.-grown organic agricultural produce.
Health and Environmental Concerns
Underlying the growth in demand for organic products is a greater consumer preoccupation with health. The use of factory-made fertilizers, agricultural chemicals, synthetic additives, and other kinds of "unnatural" substances is, of course, covered by a mesh of laws and regulations. And there are all kinds of restrictions in the form of environmental standards. But more consumers prefer not to use such substances at all and are seeking out organic products, even if these are relatively expensive or do not look appealing.
Also, the heightened concern of ordinary people regarding environmental protection should not be overlooked. There has been an increase in support for ending the use of agricultural chemicals and for organic farming. The fear is that if chemicals and chemical fertilizers continue to pollute the soil, there is a possibility of residual contamination of agricultural produce or of nearby river and lake water, endangering the water supply. That would have a direct impact on human health.
Those involved in production and marketing have been quick to respond to this change in consumer awareness and purchasing philosophy. They have begun to develop strategies to promote organic products, which in turn has boosted demand. So now the market is showing signs of incipient cyclical expansion.
Meanwhile, agricultural produce vaguely tagged as "organic" or carrying similar endorsements based on unclear standards have begun to circulate in recent years, sowing doubt and confusion among consumers. Therefore, in April 1993 the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries began to apply guidelines established six months earlier for product descriptions of organically grown agricultural produce and other items. The guidelines cover six areas, including organic farm produce, farm produce grown without chemicals, and farm produce grown with reduced amounts of chemicals. Because of their lack of legal force, the ministry now is considering revising them.
Some local governments are establishing their own standards for organic farm produce. The front-runner was Okayama Prefecture. Preempting the ministry's setting of guidelines, Okayama introduced a system of certification in 1988. There were two sets of standards, one for organically cultivated farm produce and one for organic farm produce without any kind of chemical input, including those based on natural agents, such as Dalmation pyrethrum. In the eight intervening years, various initiatives have been undertaken in the fields, and the number of producer groups that have acquired certification has risen year by year to a level believed to be over 100. Eight prefectures, including Tokyo, have independently introduced standards and certification schemes. Nearly 20 other prefectures are preparing to do so. In each case, the aim is to supplement the ministry's guidelines with standards tailored to the special characteristics of the production area in question.
Some members of the pioneering consumer groups that originally organized direct delivery of organically grown vegetables from the production areas express dissatisfaction. The objective of their activities, they say, is not only, of course, to promote safer food but also to seek the development of agricultural methods that dispense with factory fertilizers and other chemicals altogether and thereby protect the global environment. In these areas, too, they say, stiffer administrative guidelines are needed.