Avoid the chemically impaired


Anyone who has cruised around a Japanese supermarket or the basement of a department store has no doubt feasted their eyes on the robust, red and super-shiny apples at about ¥1,000 a pop.

Whatever the price, they’re supposed to keep the doctor away — but is it possible that they may be sending us to one instead? Just how healthy are the fruits and vegetables we fill our baskets with each week?

As people in developed countries have become aware of the chemicals used in industrial farming, the demand for food labeled as “organic” has grown. Broadly speaking, this means produce that is grown without the use of pesticides, sludge from sewage, artificial fertilizers or human waste, or animals that are reared without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics.

Jack Bayles, a pioneer of organic food imports to Japan, is passionate about the importance of organic products. He first imported peanut butter 20 years ago through his company Alishan, which has grown into a nationwide home-delivery service. Today, he says, you can import just about anything organic. But he warns that there is a “dirty dozen” of must-buy organic foods — ones that even after washing, contain higher levels of pesticide residue than others: bell peppers, celery, potatoes, spinach, apples, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, raspberries and strawberries.

“Eating a conventional strawberry is like taking a cotton ball and wiping it around in a chemical bottle,” Bayles says. “If washing vegetables removed chemicals, we’d all be scrubbing madly. The chemicals are not just on the surface but can be part of the flesh of the produce. So many chemicals are in the ground. It’s throughout the system.

“Choosing organic foods is good for the environment — it’s good for me personally, the consumer, or the people I share my food with — and it’s good for all the people involved in food production on all levels,” Bayles says.

Recent studies back up the environmental benefits of producing food organically. For example, a Stanford University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined two sets of apple trees, one that was fertilized with synthetic chemicals, and the other with manure or alfafa. The differences in the two results were used to trace the source of nitrogen pollution — a contributor to global warming, which was found in dramatically higher concentrations in the chemically fertilized soils.

According to the 2006 World Organic Foods And Beverage Report by U.S.-India-based market research company RNCOS, which specializes in business development, Japan will be the top country in Asia in terms of organic food market revenue for the next four years. RNCOS predicts that its market will grow by nearly 30 percent by 2011.

But for now, there aren’t so many options. The Japanese government has made concerted efforts to make the organic label mean something in this country. Since 2001, all “growers, manufacturers, repackers and importers” in Japan wishing to label their products “organic” must be certified by the Japan Agricultural Standard (JAS), an organic certification program by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which enforces criteria that are usually more stringent than on other developed countries.

“In Japan, less than 1 percent of food sold is certified as organic,” says Tomoko Katagiri, of organic export company Mitoku Co., Ltd., which exports Japanese products such as miso, soy sauce and soba to more than 40 countries.

The strict law means hundreds of products that fall into the category of organic elsewhere never make it to shelves here.

“The United States and Europe can state ‘made with organic ingredients’ even if the product itself is not certified organic,” says Martin Hope of Gifu-based organic import company Warabe Maru. “But in Japan, the regulations have tightened up what is really organic and have prevented what was just being labeled as such from getting to the shelf as organic. You can more or less trust when something has a JAS mark on it that it is organic.

“With all the time-consuming red tape, so many organic suppliers from the United States just cannot deal with the amount of paperwork asked for and just give up. When governments cannot agree on equivalency agreements, this causes all sorts of problems, which has resulted in many U.S. organic products not being certified JAS.”

Anyone who has gone to a supermarket in search of the JAS logo can attest to the scarcity of organic products available — usually just spaghetti, natto (fermented soybeans), soy milk and, if you’re lucky, perhaps a few others.

A handful of grocery stores (Life, for example, in the Tokyo metropolitan and Kansai areas) boast a small selection of locally grown organic veggies (spinach, tomatoes, onions and potatoes), which are usually put out on a small stand, away from their shiny and beautiful nonorganic counterparts and sold for a slightly higher price.

Consumers who choose to eat organic need to accept that the fruits and vegetables will appear a little less-than-perfect.

Organic resources in Japan

* Happy Cow’s Vegetarian Guide to Restaurants and Health Food stores:

* The Natural Healing Center’s list of vegetarian and vegan restaurants and food stores

* Tengu Natural Foods’ home delivery:

Stores carrying organic food:

* Alishan Cafe & Shop (Tengu Foods, other items and fresh produce):

* Gaia: Ochanomizu, Yoyogiuehara (Tokyo):

* Gruppe: Ogikubo, Kichijyoji, Mitaka (Tokyo):

* Natural House: Aoyama, Yurakucho (Tokyo), Yokohama in Kanagawa, Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto (about 30 shops):

* Carrot (Osaka):

* Shun-rakuzen, Nagoya and Inchinomiya, Aichi Prefecture —

* Organic House, Yumehiroba, Fukuoka:

“If you see a little nibble on a head of lettuce, it means it is safe for a little creature to eat, which means it would be safe for us to eat as well,” says the exporter Katagiri. “When we see different sizes of eggplant, potatoes, cucumbers with odd shapes, we need to accept their characters. Then farmers do not need to use so many chemicals to achieve our desire for perfection.”

Japan has a long history of eating local, seasonal foods. But since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese have slowly but steadily moved toward a more Western diet, drifting away from foods that were grown on local farms in ways that we now call organic.

“Tomatoes don’t taste anything like I remember eating when I was a child. They have changed the flavor to fit consumers’ love of sweetness, so they have lost their real taste,” Katagiri says. “I would give up eating tomatoes in the winter if I could eat those tasty tomatoes in summer.”

But for those who want to eat organic foods for the greater good of the environment, consumers in Japan face a dilemma: Does the carbon footprint wrought from fueling transportation, food refrigeration and so on outweigh the benefits of choosing organic products?

“There is no easy answer to that question,” says the importer Hope, adding that the choice should be made on a case-by-case basis. “I would certainly prefer to buy a local-grown cabbage over an imported organic cabbage, to support local farmers. In reality, both use fossil fuels — one directly, one indirectly. I am more than happy to purchase organic imports, say organic olive oil or organic raisins, when a domestic product is not really available.”