JAS vs USDA: What Does It Mean To Be Organic In Japan?

  • 8 min read
JAS vs USDA: What does it mean to be organic in Japan?

While the term “organic” has become widespread around the world in regard to food and agriculture, access to organic produce can still be expensive and the ability for conventional agricultural organizations to shift to sustainable, organic production can be costly and complicated.

However, with a rise in global interest in organically produced goods, there is a clear potential for growth in the coming years. Some European governments are even paving the way for global change by demonstrating the efficacy of legislation and governmental support in the agriculture sector. That being said, the current state of organic farming around the world remains rather dismal.

The case is no different in two of the world’s largest economies, Japan and the US.

While North America is the largest global market for organic foods and products, having reached nearly US$50 billion annually in 2018, the overall proportion of organic farmland compared to conventional farmland accounts for less than 1% of total acreage. Unfortunately, Japan is even further behind, with a mere 0.1% of farmland being certified as organic and a comparatively low US$590 million being spent each year on organic products.

These numbers paint a stark picture of the current situation, but there are some researchers that feel this data can be misleading. For example, one of the biggest obstacles for Japanese farmers and producers looking to obtain organic certification is the difficulty of obtaining certification itself. In the US there are nearly 80 agencies authorized to certify farms and businesses using USDA Organic regulations. In Japan there are just 53 agencies authorized to certify farmers and businesses using JAS regulations, which are arguably stricter than USDA guidelines.

Additionally, the range of products that these JAS agencies can certify is still fairly limited, excluding some processed goods made with organic ingredients. Therefore, there are plenty of Japanese farmers that while meeting USDA standards, and even JAS standards, may be deterred from going through the process of certification due to the cost and labor it entails. As a result, these farmers and companies aren’t counted in these data points despite utilizing organic production methods.

In this article, we’ll be looking at how both nations differ in terms of organic farming and what Japan is doing to try and improve their position in the global initiatives towards larger scale sustainable, environmentally friendly agricultural methods. We’ll also look at how some of the obstacles facing organic farmers in both nations are quite similar and the unique ways Japan is trying to approach them.


A Brief History of Organics in Japan

Initiatives for organic farming in Japan started in the 1970’s during which time farmers, researchers, and citizens began to notice the effects of widespread agrochemical and pesticide use. This led to the establishment of organizations aimed at connecting local producers with consumers and researchers to spread the knowledge and techniques of organic farming practices and initiate change. However, this system instead created a closed market where the organic produce and farming techniques circulated in a separate sphere without effecting the conventional industry.

In fact some conventional organizations even began to try and capitalize on the trending term, like in the US, by taking advantage of the lack of regulatory laws and labeling conventual products as organic, similar to the way that many still use the marketing term “natural.”

This trend continued into the 1990’s and early 2000’s in Japan until which time there were no clear guidelines or regulations for what could be labeled as “organic.”  This changed with the establishment of JAS, or Japan Agricultural Standards of Organic Agricultural Practice, in 2001 which outlined the specific terms that must be met for products to be JAS certified organic. Initially, the only products that could be certified were limited to fruits, vegetables, and grains. This was expanded to include livestock products in 2005, but some products made using organic produce or organically produced materials still can’t display the JAS certification mark.

What’s in a Label Anyway?

Despite the establishment of these regulatory laws, it remains difficult for Japanese farmers to obtain certification due to the numerous records that must be kept and the cost of maintaining an organic certification once obtained. Some of the steps even include taking measurements for the presence of prohibited substances in the surrounding area, and even prohibiting the use of mosquito coils while working in the fields. It is estimated that it takes 1.6 times more labor hours with a 15% reduction in overall yield when farmers attempt to transition to organic production in Japan. Additionally, the transition is made more difficult considering the fact that there are little to no support systems for farmers making this costly and complicated transition where a large enough failure in implementation could spell disaster.

It is for this reason that many believe that the statistics surrounding “organic” farming in Japan, like many other countries, may not be entirely accurate. That is because it doesn’t necessarily account for the small-scale farmers, which make up the majority of Japan’s agricultural industry, that utilize organic production techniques without going through the trouble and cost of obtaining certification. There is also the fact that there are different types of labels in the JAS certification system. There are the gold labels, applied to products produced meeting all 6 of the JAS regulatory standards (see list below,) there are orange labels, applied to products meeting standards 2 through 6, and then there are green labels for products that farmers have attempted to reduce their use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by more than 50% but were unable to. 

1. Organic: no chemicals have been used for more than three years;

2. Organic in transition: no chemicals have been used for a period between six months and three years;

3. No pesticides: no chemical pesticides have been used;

4. Reduced pesticides: the use of chemical pesticides is reduced more than 50 percent of the average pesticide application;

5. No chemical fertilizer grown: products grown without chemical fertilizer; and

6. Reduced fertilizer grown: products where the use of chemical fertilizers is reduced to less than 50 percent of the average fertilizer use.

The range of certification options seems encouraging in that it promotes the necessary steps towards complete certification, but it remains clear that there is still a lot of work to do in promoting organic farming in Japan.

With Knowledge Comes Change

Following government support, the next most important factor in transitioning towards more organic production lies in the hands of producers and consumers. That is because despite familiarity with the term organic, not all consumers are certain what that entails and what the benefits are of shopping organic. One survey conducted in Japan found that while 90% of consumers were familiar with the term “organic,” only around 4% knew the term accurately, 29% roughly knew what the labeling restrictions entailed, and 58% knew the term but were unfamiliar with what the restrictions were. Most also obtained their information on organic methods through supermarket signage, word of mouth, and from subscription services. Some who oppose government sponsored transitions towards organic farming argue that it is this unfamiliarity that would only work to cause confusion and distress among consumers and farmers alike.

Like in the US, it is believed that most Japanese consumers shop organic for reasons associated with personal health and the reassurance of the safety of their food while not being familiar with the connection organic farming has to environmental protection. And it is the environmental benefits that most researchers argue is the most important aspect of organic farming.

A Different Method, A Different Market

Even still, the larger presence of organic products in supermarkets and stores throughout the US make them more easily obtained regardless of shoppers’ intentions. The larger market and demand mean that despite still being a little out of reach for some consumers, the hope is that as demand and supply increases, products will become more affordable.

While the hope is that similar growth will occur in Japan, the shopping methods of Japanese consumers is different than US consumers. In Japan, most spending on organic products in supermarkets is still relatively low in the context of individual monthly spending patterns. Whereas supermarket shopping is what makes up most of the spending on organic goods in the US.

Surprisingly, the area that has the highest monthly spending in the organic market in Japan is still tied to the system started in the 1970’s: subscription-based, home-delivery services. These are often operated in either direct producer-consumer service systems or through farming cooperatives where producers work through distributors to package and ship products directly to consumers. This direct connection is why many Japanese consumers shop this way, for the belief that eating local is not only healthier, but also works to directly support producers and one’s community. The trust established through these relationships also makes for stronger bonds and possibly even a stronger industry than a supermarket-based model.


Organic Farming as a Path to Revitalization

Looking to the future, a transition towards widespread organic farming is thought to be an ideal model to help promote rural revitalization and give more direct feedback and income to farmers; two issues facing the Japanese agricultural industry and Japanese society as a whole.

Currently, most people employed in the agricultural sector in Japan are 60 years or older, with little growth in new entry into the industry. The growth that is happening, however, is encouraging. Many new farms are small organic operations being opened by young people leaving metropolitan areas. These farms often operate locally, and some have even become domestic tourist destinations.

Local governments and municipalities are beginning to work on initiatives to support and endorse the opening of new organic farms as a way to revitalize dwindling countryside regions. By bringing young people into these regions, they would be simultaneously supporting growth in the agricultural industry and brining opportunities for local economic growth through tourism and local trade. Traditional foods and products can also be maintained through these operations, and new local restaurants can open using the organic produce, adding to the appeal of small countryside towns as desirable travel destinations. In many ways, it is an ideal solution to several complicated problems.

This approach, often referred to as eco-tourism, has Japanese municipalities aiming not only at attracting domestic tourists, but also international travelers as well. There is a term in Japaneseomotenashi, which refers to the type of warm, gracious, no-detailed-left-unconsidered hospitality displayed in Japan. Some supporters of organic farming argue that by committing to using organic produce, one is committing to offering the greatest hospitality one can; a concept that can be adopted by restaurants, inns, and grocers alike.

By supplying guests with the highest quality, safest, and most delicious food possible, every detail is truly being considered. Combine that with the appeal of experiencing traditional Japanese countryside life and there’s no doubt local industries will grow.

A Brief Conclusion

To sum things up, both the US and Japan have a long way to go to improve their organic industries. While each nation might have its own unique setbacks, there is no question that without government support and consumer knowledge, no substantial change can be made. As seen in the efforts to revitalize countryside towns through farming, the path towards change can be creative and unique. It can also involve the local community rather than major agricultural conglomerates and wealthy investors, working towards lasting, meaningful change. However it comes, let’s hope that change will come soon!

About the author: Kevin Kilcoyne’s About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!


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