Yes, plant-based meat has exploded in the Japan market, but it looks quite different from the alternative protein booms in Western markets

In spring of 2020, we observed a sudden explosion of plant-based meat and dairy products in the Japanese market, with new launches nearly every week. A year later, the launches continue, one after another.

While the conversation in western countries is often dominated by well-funded imitation meat products like Beyond Burger or Impossible Meats, in Japan the new alternative protein products were launched by domestic companies; nearly all major meat processors have released a plant-based meat alternative as well as products from major plant oil crushers and soy-based processors, dairy processors, frozen food manufacturers, health food & drink manufacturers, as well as many major retail chains and major café and hamburger chains.

However, interestingly, nearly all of these plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are soy-based, in contrast to Western countries where there is a much more diversity in the plant-based proteins used in meat alternatives, including pea protein, mung beans or seaweed.

The pioneers of alternative meat and dairy in the Japanese market are the major traditional soybean players. For example, Fujioil, the largest soybean cooking oil crusher, with a 50% share of the soy-based meat market, recently launched their fermented soy-based cheese, mainly for food service players and food processors. We heard from a cheese distributor that these soy-based alternative cheese products are quite price competitive and is starting to develop a market. Marukome, the largest traditional soybean seasoning paste (miso) manufacturer, was also one of the early players in the alternative meat market, with their plant-based ground meat. They have both retail and food service products. The retail sales of they ground soy “meat” grew quickly during COVID19 lockdowns, because some consumers who were limiting their grocery runs liked its long shelf life.

March 2020 was the magic month for meat alternatives in Japan with a sudden explosion of new products.

Almost all major meat processors entered the market. Starzen, one of the leading meat integrated company, together with a leading health food and drink manufacturer Otsuka, developed a brand called ‘ZEROMEAT’, and is selling plant-based sausages, meat ball and hamburg steak patties made from soy protein and egg whites. Ito Ham, one of the leading meat processors, also entered the market with a ‘Soy Meat’ brand in the last Spring. In the same week, the largest meat processor, Nippon Ham entered the market too with a brand called ‘Natu Meat’, which utilize konnyaku (the root of the konjac potato) to add chewy texture to the soy protein.

Of course, various manufactures of savory snacks as well as frozen ready-to-eat products also followed this trend. Koikeya, the second largest player in the savory snack market, expanded their pilot sales of a soy-based protein snack called ‘Guiltless Fried Chicken’ to nationwide in June 2020. Yonekyu, a leading meat and frozen food manufacture, developed a frozen ready-to-eat food brand called ‘AIR MEAT’, which includes curry, dim sum, meat balls and Sichuan-inspired mapo tofu.

In addition to those food manufacturers, the retail and food service chains are also main drivers of this soy-meat trend. In 2020, almost all convenience store chains, including Lawson, Seven Eleven, Family Mart, as well as several food service and cafe chains jumped into the market, but again, all of them are soy-based products. For example, Lawson, one of the leading convenience store chains, released various ready-to-eat products containing soy-based meat last year, including soy-based hamburgers, deep-fried soy-based cutlets, rice balls with soy meat, and deep-fried soy meat nuggets. The leading café chain, Doutor, also launched a soy-based burger in autumn 2020.

What is driving the alternative meat boom in Japan?

Most of these soy-based products are mainly developed for health-conscious consumers, and not necessarily in response to vegan or vegetarian trends, nor any particular focus on the environmental benefits of plant-based products. Many of these products contain eggs or dairy. The number of strict vegans or vegetarians is limited in Japan. A consumer survey conducted by a consulting firm Frembassy in Dec 2019 indicated that about 5.7% of Japanese consumers say they follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. However following a vegan or vegetarian diet in Japan is not necessarily driven by any ethical or lifestyle philosophy. Instead the concept of ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ in Japan in particular often refers to the type of food desired for a day or meal. “Let’s have vegan food on Friday!” is a common way to hear the term.

Furthermore, there is also hardly any mention of any environmental benefit of soy-based meat in the marketing messages. Japanese consumer concern about any negative environmental impact from the livestock industry is low in Japan, as seen by the surprise in Japan when the Japanese Minister of the Environment Shinjiro Koizumi was denounced in the Western media for eating steak when he went to New York to attend the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019. Similarly, consumer awareness of the concept of animal welfare is also still very low in Japan.. An online survey conducted by the Animal Rights Center in March 2020 showed that 85.8% of consumers responded that they had never heard about animal welfare.

In fact, these newly launched soy-based plant protein products primarily rely on the existing positive image of soy embedded in the Japanese mind. “Soy is healthy” is a widely accepted concept among consumers in Japan. Japan has a long history of eating local soy-based products, like tofu and natto (fermented soybeans). Many Japanese consumers believe that Japanese traditional cuisine is ‘healthy,’ and the heavy use of various soy-based products in the traditional cuisine is considered as one of the reason traditional cuisine can be considered “healthy”. According to a survey conducted by My Voice Com in Dec 2019, 63% of consumers said they are making a conscious effort to include soy foods in their regular diet[1].

In addition to the overall positive health image of soybeans, Japanese consumers’ growing interest in protein in general is also helping these soy-based protein products. Demand for protein-enriched drinks and food began to increase in Japan in 2015, and this trend was further accelerated by the government’s increase in the recommended target protein requirement for seniors in 2018 to prevent frailty caused by aging. This led to increased consumption of products like whey protein powder, protein bars, and protein drinks. Such demand for protein further expanded after COVID19 as Japan consumers worried about the negative health impacts of “stay at home” restrictions in 2020.

As in Western markets, plant-based protein is a growing food innovation trend in Japan, but the context is very different. Marketing related to environmental benefits, sustainability or animal welfare are not part of the message. Japan is a soy-based alternative protein market, relying on consumers’ strong positive image toward soy as well as on the price competitiveness of soy protein compared to animal-based protein.

What does the future look like?

The trend towards increased protein consumption overall suggests that alternative meat is not just a fad, but has a chance to develop a permanent market in Japan, not necessarily as an alternative to meat or dairy, but as an additional source of affordable protein. We expect to see diversification from soy and into other plant ingredients. Konnyaku (konjac potato) is one that is getting recent play in alternative seafood products such as imitation unagi eel and pea protein suppliers from overseas have shown interest in the Japanese market.

However we expect that successful meat alternatives in Japan will need to continue to focus their marketing on taste, competitive price and “healthier” messaging, and not assume that mainstream Japanese consumers will pay a premium at the moment for plant-based products marketed as a sustainable or eco-friendly “alternative”.

[1] My Voice Com, Dec 16 2019, Survey on Soy Food Products
https://prtimes.jp/main/html/rd/p/000000820.000007815.html

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in China is Developing its Own Characteristics

 

In honor of “CSA Day” today February 22, I thought I would share some observations from my recent exploration into the community supported agriculture movement in China. I am familiar with trends in Japanese agriculture related to ecological agriculture, organic farming, rural community development and alternative food movements, and have had the opportunity to do many deep dives into various aspects of the US organic industry.

However, when I learned that the number of CSAs has been exploding in China, amid increasing discussions of environmental issues and food safety concerns, I was interested in understanding how community supported agriculture was developing in China, in a country with strong state-directed agriculture policy and weak tradition of civil society and community engagement in urban areas. My chance came at the 10th China Community Supported Agriculture Conference held in Chengdu, Sichuan Province in December 2018.

The conference attracted over 1,000 attendees including CSA farms, academics, politician and government staff, farm tourism and education business operators, agritech & food tech companies, certification agencies, architects as well as international guests from France, Netherlands, Canada, the US and Japan.

In China, where farmland is still collectively owned and the majority of farmers are smallholders, China’s CSA movement tends toward developing commercial-oriented agricultural business opportunities through the establishment of environmental-friendly agricultural practices as well as trustworthy distribution channels to consumers. To be honest, I felt that the current Chinese CSA approach is quite different from the original CSA concept of ‘maintaining and developing small-scale organic family farming and of achieving local food sovereignty,’ and there is less sense of ‘community.’

However, with CSA developing in this direction and seemingly embraced by the State government as one tool for improving food safety and building confidence among consumers. CSA could have a large social and political impact in China’s future agricultural scene. It makes Chinese CSA an important movement to watch.  Here are some main observations.

1.CSA Projects are Rapidly Expanding but In a Different Trajectory than the US or Japan

CSA, as defined by the International Network for Community Supported Agriculture (URGENCI) is the concept of partnerships between producers and consumers to maintain small-scale organic family farming and of achieving local food sovereignty for communities, as a solution to the problems associated with global intensive agricultural production and distribution. These partnerships of course will take different forms around the world, depending on social, political, economic or agricultural realities.

The CSA movement was born in the US on two farms during late 1980’s in response to an increasingly industrialized food system, marked by large private farms, retail supermarkets and top-down food safety laws and standards. CSA in the US has expanded to 5,000-6,000 programs and more than 12,000 farms are involved in CSA now. Today, you can see various styles of CSA, and the farms working with CSA programs are not only organic but also conventional.

CSA was originally an economic risk-sharing system whereby (mostly urban) consumers signed an annual subscription contract with local small-scale organic farmers before the planting season. The system often includes labor sharing and educational meetups to strengthen the ties between member farmers and consumers. A concept similar to CSA was also seen in Japan and other countries, from the early 1970’s. In Japan, this system is known as teikei (literally ‘partnership’), and it emerged from an awareness of increasing health problems caused by agrochemical usage, during the course of rapid economic development in Japan. Teikei aimed to create relationships between small-scale organic farmers and urban consumer communities.

The concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) was introduced in China almost 10 years ago. In China, one challenge was already that the word used for “community” (shequ) is a word adopted by the Chinese government in 1980s to describe administrative units that took on the welfare and community services role that had previously been carried out by the work unit (danwei) under the communist planned economy system. This word did not necessarily include the broader concepts the word “community” as used in other countries. Together with the lack of a tradition of participatory self-governance in urban cities and the rapid expansion of massive population influx to urban areas, it has been difficult for a broader concept of community to take root in Chinese cities.

Prof. Wen Tiejun of Renmin University described the expansion of the network of CSA farms in China.

The pioneer CSA in China was a farm called Little Donkey Farm in Beijing, which was set up in 2008 as a Renmin University project by PhD student Shi Yan, who had learned about the concept from a small CSA farm in Minnesota. In 2009, a year later, Professor Wen Tiejun, one of the most influential agriculture economists in China, organized the Chinese federation of CSAs with 9 CSA farms, and started to lead the CSA initiative in China. Since then, the little seed sown by the Little Donkey Farm in Beijing has now sprouted to over 1,000 CSA projects all over China and over 100 ,000 farmers and consumers are involved in these projects. The CSA farm concept is attracting highly-educated young Chinese people to start their own farming businesses.

2. The Concept had evolved from ‘Community Supported Agriculture’ to ‘Ecological and Social Agriculture’

Throughout my discussions, it became clear that the CSA movement in China is trying to position itself as much broader concept, encompassing all business opportunities that can strengthen ties between farmers and consumers while ensuring eco-friendly agriculture and food safety.

Concern about food safety, as well as concerns about the environmental impact of farming, are drivers of many Chinese agriculture policies and movements. The idea of organic agriculture (youji nongye), in China, is strongly associated with certification systems and is commercially driven by more by consumer’s food safety concerns than by an underlying political or social philosophy. There is already a growing market for organic labelled foods, with well-recognized corporate players and government support. Shentai Nongye (Ecological Agriculture) is the farming concept promoted in government policies China since late 1980s, meaning eco-friendly sustainable farming model integrating crop and livestock operations.

In order to emphasize that CSA also includes the concept of “society”, the Chinese CSA federation decided to change the Chinese translation of CSA several years ago from “Shequ Zhichi Nongye (literally, Community Supported Agriculture)” to “Shehui Shentai Nongye (Socio-Ecological Agriculture)”. By adding the aspect of Society (Shehui), the CSA Federation emphasizes the importance of ties between farmers and consumers and builds on the already familiar concept of “ecological agriculture”.

3. China’s CSA initiative has strong political and academic support

Academics have played an important role in the CSA initiative in China, from the very first CSA farm. Furthermore, academic-led initiatives are seeking more policy and government involvement in order to broaden the concept and their practices.

For example, the opening event of the conference was a joint signing ceremony for various large-scale government agricultural investment projects in the region, and in the first panel session, several Chinese agricultural economic professors discussed the need for political support for CSAs.

This is strikingly different from the US and Japan, where originally the CSA movement started as voluntary networks of farmers and consumers who shared a philosophy of seeking alternative ways of farming as a counter-movement against intensive, commercial large-scale farming.

5. Technology is being introduced especially in food distribution, payment, traceability and certification.

The event also had a farmers’ market. High-quality honey could be bought using the cashless WeChat Pay app.

Technology was extensively covered in the conference, especially various technologies related to food distribution, traceability and certification. With the development of agri-tech and food-tech in China, CSA is also trying to utilize technology to find the optimal way to reach consumers and to ensure an efficient route from farm to consumers. For example, sessions in the conference introduced various cutting-edge blockchain test-cases in agriculture and food chains in developing countries, as well as a fish resource conservation program utilizing tech solutions.

4. The Chinese CSA concept is diverse and includes farmers markets, farm stays, local food branding, rural development and local seed conservation.

A native seed exchange event was hosted for farmers from various regions in China

The wide diversity of topics covered in the conference was impressive. For example, organic farm managers discussed technology in an organic farming panel: a local corn seed conservation program presented on its collaboration with a university and local villages; rural development was discussed from the viewpoint of international architects; the Sichuan government explained its local food branding initiative and its marketing and export strategy.

Professor Kazumi Kondoh from Chuo University in Japan, who presented on the Japanese teikei system at the conference, raised her concern that the Chinese CSA movement is more focused on profitable business models and is not putting enough effort into encouraging the philosophy of organic agriculture and the ultimate objective of achieving local food sovereignty. Her concern is understandable.

But, if CSA is to be influential in China, it must work with the government under the current Chinese political system and be aligned with current government policies. With growing demand for safe food and escalating concerns about environmental issues, people see clear business opportunities in developing reliable food chains as well as in agri-tourism and agri-education. The CSA movement in China will inevitably be shaped by China’s own characteristics and it remains an interesting area to watch in order to understand the bigger picture of China’s agricultural development and food systems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bees, Wines and Rice: Three Japanese Agtech Start-ups to Watch

At the recent Nikkei Ag/Sum Agritech Summit, Tokyo welcomed agtech and food tech start-ups from around the world to exhibit and present.  However, some of the highlights were Japan’s own homegrown start-ups, who may have gotten less attention because less information was available in English.

In the global agtech universe, if you mention Japan, the immediate association is usually hydroponic vertical farming technology (called “plant factories” in Japanese) and robotics/drones. This is not surprising. Japan is a country where nearly 50% of the country lives in one of three densely packed metro areas (Tokyo-Yokahama, Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto and Nagoya). In rural areas, the number of farmers is dropping dramatically, farm land increasingly lies uncultivated and the average age of a Japanese farmer is 66. Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate is now less than 40%.

Japan’s tech, engineering, machinery and robotics industries have been increasingly active in agtech R&D, aiming for potential solutions to the hot button Japanese issues of decreasing farm production, aging farmers and food security.  Hydroponic farming, led by names such as Spread and Mirai, and robotics and drones being developed by universities and research institutes as well as companies like Yamaha, Fujitsu or Panasonic, have received significant media attention.

But indoor farming and drones are far from the only agtech innovation in Japan. Below are three interesting  Japanese start-ups that recently exhibited at Nikkei’s Ag/Sum Agritech Summit.

ad-dice Co., Ltd.’s Bee Sensing

Bee Sensing offers an IoT sensor device that allows bee keepers to remotely monitor bee health and activity. Through a smartphone app, beekeepers can check temperature, humidly and how active bees are as well as receive alerts and record memos.  Bee hives are often placed in distant or remote areas, making it difficult for farmers to visit them every day. This IoT sensor system is expected to increase beekeeper productivity by freeing them from constant patrolling of distant beehives. It will also allow timely reactions to changes in bee health and decrease beekeeper worry about the health of their remote apiaries.  It also creates honey production data records to share with customers who are increasingly interested in the differences in local honeys and their different tastes and colors.

Bee Sensing’s patented technology was a collaboration between Japanese IT company, ad-dice, founded by Daisuke Ito and featured as one of Toyo Keizai Magazine’s Top 100 Ventures That Will Change Japan in Feb 2017, and innovative beekeeper Hideki Matsubara from Hiroshima.

Bee sensing technology may be a niche industry within agtech but these emerging technologies can serve an extremely important industry. According to FAO statistics, honey production is around 1.2 million metric tons globally, mainly concentrated in China, North Eastern Europe and the US.  It is a high value industry. For example, the US retail price of natural honey is around 5-7 US$/pound and bee by-products, like propolis, are even more expensive. In addition to those products, the bee industry itself is also creating extremely important economic value – pollination.

There are now number of bee hive remote monitoring technologies being developed around the world, from the UK, US and Bulgaria among others as interest in this high value agricultural industry increases.

Kisvin Science’s Sap Flow Sensor

Kisvin Science’s sap flow sensor was developed to support the grape-growing and wine making industry. Japan may be better known for its beer or sake, but Japan actually also has a significant wine industry, centered in Yamanashi prefecture.  The sap flow sensors monitor grape stem heat and soil moisture.

Co-founder Kazuhiro Nishioka originally established a small sap flow sensor manufacturing company, Nissy Instruments, as a side-business when he was a PhD student. He then created Team Kisvin, an initiative with two wine grape farmers (Hitoshi Ikegawa of i-vines and Yasuhiro Ogihara founder of the Kisvin winery) to study and improve viticulture in Yamanashi.  They have been using the with sap sensors to produce premium wine grapes now for 10 years ago.

With the increasing number of cooperative farms, they have released their own branded Kisvin wines.  In 2015, Team Kisvin decided to found Kisvin Science in order to support other wine grape farmers and wineries around the world. Their first new market target is California.

There are several sap flow sensors in the market, but Kisvin Science feels its strength is its low cost achieved with cutting-edge printing technology, Nishioka and his team’s aggregate knowledge of plant physiology and its relationship to wine grape farming. His team is aiming to raise its next round of funding soon, and is considering whether to target Japanese or US funds.

Rice Technology Kawachi’s Rice Gel

Some of the best inventions are accidents. Dr. Junichi Sugiyama unintentionally developed a new food ingredient – a type of rice gel – when he was a senior researcher  under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. He found an innovative way to convert cooked rice into a gel-like paste which retains moisture well. Since retiring from the institute, Dr Sugiyama has dedicated his energy to commercializing this product, with the strong support from the local rice-growing community in Kawachi, Ibaraki, and leading agriculture machinery manufacturer Yanmar.

Dr Sugiyama’s rice gel is a smooth white paste, which can be produced in any level of solidity or density, depending on customer needs. The product is made only from rice and water, so it is free from major allergens.

This rice gel food technology addresses two major problems the food industry in Japan and overseas has found when using rice flour.  First, rice flour has low absorption capacity for water, meaning most rice flour breads and cakes also have add wheat in order to improve moisture absorption. Second, rice flour usually is also more expensive than wheat or other flours, as rice production costs are high.

However the rice gel retains moisture, meaning bakers can eliminate wheat, which can be an allergen for some consumers. It has been particularly attractive to cake and confectionery bakers who aim for moist, fluffy creations.

In addition, Kawachi is able to produce for a competitive price, because they use rice which is high in amylose (a type of starch component that forms a solid gel at room temperature) which is a high yield type of rice. High amylose rice production for non-table rice can currently receive subsidies under the rice acreage reduction policy of the Japanese government which is helping Kawachi Rice Technology maintain lower costs than rice flour producers.

Full disclosure, Nikkei Ag/Sum event was not the first time Meros has encountered Kawachi rice gel.  Last year Team Meros’ Lucia Vancura discussed the product as a panelist on NHK World’s Biz Buzz Japan when the gel was still in its R&D stage. This is why we were even more pleased to get an update from Dr Sugiyama and see his progress in commercializing this product.  There is hope that this ingredient will have opportunities in the global baking industry, especially in the gluten free baking market, where rice flour is usually too expensive to use as the main substitute for wheat flour.