Scaling down for sustainability


any industrialised nations are losing farmers to old age, but the situation is especially dire in Japan – the fastest ageing developed country whose young people continue to migrate to the cities. The proposed solution is to completely change the way this country, one of the world’s highest net food importers, manages agriculture. The government wants to expand the size of the average farm 30-fold over the next five years to make food production competitive in a global market place, and is considering entering discussions on free trade agreements. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, would expose domestic rice farmers to international competition. Understandably, agricultural associations are arguing loudly for food self-sufficiency.

These days, to many consumers, food safety is an even bigger issue. Consumers expect fresh, high-quality produce, for example, and they also are reading labels with greater caution. While food-safety awareness in Japan may lag behind that in other countries, today’s Japanese consumers are deeply concerned about where – and how – their food is produced.

Aragon St-Charles, founder of Japan Aquaponics, believes that demand for safety as well as self-sufficiency can be met cost-effectively by applying aquaponics. Such systems usually consist of a fish tank connected by pipes to a vegetable planter. Nutrients derived from fish waste are then used to grow fruit and vegetables in a symbiotic, closed-loop cultivation system. The advantage of the systems developed by St-Charles is that modifications can be executed economically to accommodate either a small indoor space or a large farm.

While yet to catch on in Japan, such non-traditional agriculture “could help companies reinvigorate the farming sector, raise quality and profitability, and encourage younger generations to return to farms,” says St-Charles.

Hydroponics systems, on the other hand, that use sand, gravel or liquid with added nutrients – and without fish tanks – have existed quietly in Japan for decades. They are operated almost exclusively by corporations, including the big trading houses.

Over the past 18 months or so, interest in alternative agricultural technologies has grown as performance by Japan’s agricultural industry remained weak and showed little hope of recovery. Inventions such as the Agri-Cube, a hydroponic unit developed by Daiwa House Industry, went on sale in April, and is said to have the capacity to produce 10,000 vegetables a year in the equivalent area of a single parking space. However, prices start at ¥5.5 million, so it is hardly practical for small communities or individual farmers.

According to some estimates, almost 90% of hydroponics facilities post annual losses due to the high initial capital input. Since farming licenses are difficult to obtain, most operators register as “plant factories”, which excludes them from tax breaks and incentives available to farmers.

St-Charles says aquaponics could have a big impact because of its simplicity and low start-up cost. A basic indoor home system (growing bed and fish tank) for a beginner costs just over ¥20,000. With clay pebbles in the planter and fish in a water-filled tank, the micro-aquaponic system needs only fish food to maintain a supply of vegetables.

St-Charles sees the immediate appeal of aquaponics to address the need for safe, local food production in disaster-ravaged areas. While he has been involved with aquaponics for a decade, the Canadian recruiter-turned-entrepreneur has been aggressively expanding outreach and education programmes since 3/11, aiming to educate people and raise awareness in the Tohoku region about alternative farming. Recently, for example, in collaboration with the Australian and New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan, and O.G.A. for Aid, St-Charles designed and installed an indoor aquaponics system at a community learning centre in Minamisanriku, a small coastal town in Miyagi prefecture. The next goal for Aquaponics Japan is to develop a system that can help commercial farming throughout the hard-hit northeast region.

According to St-Charles, what makes aquaponics viable in Japan for sustainable agriculture is “changing attitudes, a new focus on quality and sustainability, and consumers willing to pay for high-quality produce”

Photo Ginger Vaughn

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Ginger Vaughn is a freelance writer and TV reporter with a deep interest in environmental issues, eco-tourism and mountaineering. She is the first foreign woman to summit all of the 100 peaks of Japan, known as the “Hyakumeizan”.