Japanese-style food delivery gains ground among safety-conscious Chinese consumers

JIJI

A Japanese-assisted home delivery service for organic vegetables is slowly gaining ground in China, building on local residents’ lack of trust in food safety and concerns about pollution.

Through the service, consumers are connected by trust with farmers who produce vegetables without using agricultural chemicals or chemical fertilizers.

Senior officials of the project hope the service will establish a new agricultural business model that uses Japanese methods to instill a stronger sense of commitment to safety and peace of mind about food in Chinese society.

On Dec. 23, when the first-ever red alert on air pollution was issued for Tianjin in northeast China, farmers were tending to cherry tomatoes and lettuce in a greenhouse at a suburban farm operated by the Fuping Development Institute, a public interest nongovernmental organization.

Instead of burning coal, the greenhouse uses an environmentally friendly heat storage system in which bricks absorb sunlight. The vegetables grown there are safe enough to be eaten on site without processing, with carrots tasting rich and sweet.

“Organic farming is friendly to both people and the soil,” a Chinese staff member said. “We want to make organic vegetables available to many people.”

In December 2012, the Fuping Development Institute set up a joint venture with Daichi Wo Mamoru Kai, a pioneer of organic vegetable home delivery services in Japan.

It could not have been a worse time to get started.

Relations between Japan and China had deteriorated to the lowest point in years due to the standoff over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

But since the joint venture launched an organic vegetable home delivery service in Beijing in May 2013, the business has grown to about 3,000 deliveries per month.

Backed by rising demand from affluent and middle-class consumers willing to pay higher prices for vegetables as long as they are safe, the joint venture has also started selling organic vegetables in a high-end supermarket in Beijing.

“When I started an organic agriculture movement more than 40 years ago, Japan was suffering serious air pollution and food contamination,” recalled Kazuyoshi Fujita, president of Daichi Wo Mamoru Kai, based in Chiba Prefecture.

“I decided to deliver to the customer’s front door trustworthy agricultural produce for which the producers are known to the consumers,” Fujita said. “The use of agrochemicals or chemical fertilizers kills earthworms and loaches in soil and water. What happens to them will also happen in the human world.”

Fujita’s beliefs won over Shen Dongshu, executive director and president of the Fuping Development Institute.

“China faces problems similar to those that confronted Japan 40 years ago,” Shen said. “There are many things that we can learn from Japan.”

The Chinese leader of the institute’s farm in the Tianjin suburbs took part in a three-year training program with farmers in Japan. He has adopted Japanese methods for making fertilizers from cattle manure and for removing pests.

The farm provides training for young people from farming communities across China. When they promote Japanese-style organic agriculture in their home communities, agricultural items that are beneficial to human health and the environment will be accepted more widely, which in turn will help impoverished farmers stand on their own.

Solutions to the increasing problems of poor food safety and environmental pollution in China can no longer be bought about by the government alone and need the involvement of private-sector efforts, including by NGOs and citizens.

“A sense of crisis is spreading in China over lack of trust,” Fujita said. “If producers and consumers are connected by trust, that could change society.”