This Sunday we went to watch Food Inc. at a tiny, one-screen cinema in Shibuya, which as well as leaving me feeling shocked and more than just a little bit angry about the state of the food industry in the West, also got me thinking about ‘ethical’ food in Japan. Or rather, the lack of a conspicuously ‘ethical’ food industry here compared to the UK.
I’ve written before about how the Japanese fast food industry hasn’t (yet) suffered the kind of backlash that it has experienced at home, at least from some quarters. This less questioning attitude seems to extend beyond fast food to cover most aspects of the Japanese food industry.
Take organic produce, or what’s usually called ‘yuki’ in Japanese. In UK supermarkets now you’ll now find an organic equivalent for virtually every item in the produce aisle. In our local Japanese supermarket you might find one or two items at best. When it comes to meat, I’ve seen no or organics at all, and little in the way of any other recognisable sourcing certification.
Fair trade products are just as scarce. In the few supermarkets around our house, the only Fairtrade symbol I’ve seen so far was on one pack of imported bananas.
The one food issue that really does seem to have hit the mainstream here is eating locally. Japanese origin products are always clearly marked and often slightly more expensive than their foreign equivalents, a price that people seem willing to pay. However, whereas ‘local’ in the UK is wrapped up with the idea of ‘food miles’ and environmentalism, here motivations seem more narrowly focussed on supporting the local community and maybe avoiding potentially unsafe produce from abroad.
So, all that considered, watching Food Inc left me with mixed feelings: on one hand I was determined to try to make better food choices, even if that meant spending more; on the other hand I wasn’t sure how easy I would find that in Japan. For all I know I may already be – unwittingly – making ethical choices. But if the food industry here is anything like its been in the West then somehow I doubt it. The problem is that in the absence of labelling, its impossible to tell.
Which is why I was heartened when, after leaving the cinema, we almost immediately stumbled across a ‘Farmer’s Market’ at the nearby UN University. With stalls selling everything from locally grown organic fruit and veg, bread and honey alongside ethically sourced wild Ethiopian coffee beans and a menu of other delicious produce, we walked away with a loaf of proper bread (not easy to come by in Tokyo) and a bagful of vegetables for the week ahead.
The solid stream of trade at UNU on Sunday goes to show that that there is an interest in organic produce in Japan. Whether there’s enough to tip the trend into the mainstream is quite another thing. Despite many predictions of organic taking off here – and I believe it has potential if only on health or taste grounds – it will remain niche until the (relatively conservative) supermarkets get involved. So it seems that for now at least, most shoppers will remain satisfied in the knowledge that their products are ‘made in Japan’.
After watching Food Inc though there’s a different question nagging at me – not where but how the food I’m buying here was produced?