This post is also available in: Japanese
I attended a celebration recently at the Japanese Embassy in London, to mark the ending of the British ban on the import of food and drink originating from Fukushima. Plenty of Fukushima sake and peach juice was served but it seemed to me that the large crowd of people who were attended were more keen to get their hands on the Fukushima food that was served.
Although Japanese food has become so popular in the UK, I doubt, given the distances and size of population, that the UK is going to become a significant market for Fukushima. The Japanese ambassador admitted as much in his speech, saying that the lifting of the ban by the UK had more of a symbolic significance, which he hoped would be noted by the EU and China.
Similarly, it seems unlikely that British food is going to sell in any greater quantity to Japan than it did before the UK Japan Economic Partnership Agreement went into effect in 2021.
Nonetheless, as two island nations, who are not as self-sufficient in food as we would like to be, we have challenges in common, which means we could find solutions together too. It is becoming urgent, as our currencies have weakened, causing imported food, fertilisers and energy to fuel food price inflation.
There are differences, however. The UK is more self-sufficient than Japan, with about 54% of food needs met by domestic production, compared to 38% in Japan. Our main imports are of fresh fruit and vegetables, from the EU – much of it from the Netherlands – grown hydroponically and vertically in huge greenhouses.
The UK could develop its own hydroponic vertical farming further, but the high energy costs of this are a barrier. Energy costs are also a barrier for Japan if it wants to grow its main food imports – wheat, soybeans and oilseeds – in this way. Japan has developed hydroponic vertical technology, for growing food such as lettuce – particularly in Fukushima to avoid having to use contaminated soil – and is now working on low energy solutions.
Another area for collaboration is robotics. I noticed at the Japan embassy event that asparagus – considered to be a speciality of where I live in Norfolk – is also a speciality of Fukushima. Harvesting asparagus has become a problem in post Brexit UK – we can no longer easily hire cheap seasonal workers from the EU to do it. There are labour shortages in Japan too, and also in the Netherlands. As a result, all three nations are developing asparagus harvesting robots. The same technology can then be adjusted to cope with more complex produce.
A final challenge is to address the issue that hydroponically grown, robot harvested fruit and vegetables are not as tasty as traditionally grown and hand-picked fruit and vegetables. Agrichemicals and breeding of new strains may provide solutions to this. This may explain why, at the embassy event, I kept bumping into representatives of Japanese trading companies who have invested in these sectors in Europe.
This article by Pernille Rudlin first appeared in Japanese in the Teikoku Databank News in October 2022
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