Posts Tagged ‘imported foods’

Deflation watch: Kabocha

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Japanese pumpkin, raw and prepared

Japanese pumpkin, raw and prepared

The main story at the heart of Abenomics as far as the Japanese media is concerned is that Japanese exporters are making more money since the Liberal Democratic Party regained power. Secondarily, energy costs are rising thanks to a related increase in the dollar against the yen, not to mention imported wheat prices, which affect all sorts of processed foods in Japan. Many food-related manufacturers started raising prices on July 1 as a result.

So far, the price of imported fresh produce hasn’t been affected that much. Last year we reported on the very low price of bananas due to specific circumstances, and since then the price has gone up quite a bit owing to a typhoon that destroyed much of the Philippines’ crop. However, the prices of other fruits and vegetables that tend to be imported in large amounts haven’t changed significantly. If anything, some local produce may have come down in price and thus become more competitive, notably kabocha, the Japanese style of pumpkin, often called buttercup squash in English.

Kabocha is grown in Japan but is mainly available in the fall and early winter. During the rest of the year it is imported mainly Mexico and New Zealand, but also from New Caledonia and South Korea. Demand is so strong that Japanese companies have been running farms in these countries for almost 20 years to grow kabocha exclusively. New Zealand first started exporting the vegetable to Japan in 1988. Actually, China, India and Russia produce much more pumpkin and other types of squash but the kind they grow is not necessarily popular here. (Also, there seems to be some issue with China’s use of agrichemicals.) Japanese prefer a strain referred to as kuri-kabocha, which is drier.

Normally, the price of Japanese kabocha is two to three times that of the imported kind. In April at the Tokyo Central Produce Market, domestic kabocha was going for ¥356 per kg, while foreign kabocha was only about ¥97. However, lately the price of Japanese kabocha has come down to almost even with foreign kabocha, which is a remarkable drop. Last week at our local supermarket kabocha from Mexico was only a little less expensive than kabocha grown in Ibaraki Prefecture. It’s not clear if this is due to higher import prices because of the rising dollar or just that the domestic product is suddenly cheaper. It’s probably both, since Japanese farmers have to contend with Mexican kabocha almost year-round now that there are two growing seasons for kabocha in Mexico.

Also, kabocha, once a standard item in the Japanese diet, lost popularity some years ago and seems to be making a big comeback now among health-conscious families — kabocha contains more calcium than milk does — so farmers are producing as much as they can, thus bringing the price down.

Annals of cheap: bananas

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Yes, we have mo’ bananas

Bananas have been unusually inexpensive this fall. Normally the retail price remains in the ¥200-¥230 per kg range (1 banana is about 150 grams) year-round, and the average price for all of 2011, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was ¥218. However, the ministry recently conducted a survey of 42 retail outlets in Tokyo and found that from January to September of this year, the price was slightly less than ¥210, and at the end of September it suddenly dropped to ¥197. Then, in early October, it fell further to ¥192 and has stayed there ever since. It’s the lowest price for bananas since 1979, and importers and wholesalers don’t like it at all. According to Tokyo Shimbun, smaller importers are hoping that the larger importers will limit their supply since it appears the price drop is due to a continual flood of bananas into the market.

Why the sudden price collapse? Apparently, it has to do with political situations on two fronts. China is, for all intents and purposes, currently carrying out an embargo of Philippine bananas due to a diplomatic flareup between the two countries over control of an island in the South China Sea. Though there are no formal sanctions involved, China recently reinforced inspections for diseases and pests that have resulted in banana shipments from the Philippines being held for extended periods of time in Chinese ports. Consequently, they are in danger of spoiling, so a lot of the bananas originally meant for the Chinese market have been coming to Japan.

China is the second biggest producer of bananas in the world (after India, which consumes 80 percent of its product), but several years ago the country signed a free-trade agreement with the Philippines, and bananas are one of the latter’s few big export crops. Another major banana market for the Philippines is Iran, which is currently under the shadow of a genuine U.S.-led embargo owing to Iran’s nuclear development program, so some of the bananas that the Philippines were planning to ship to Iran are now also going to Japan.

Continue reading about bananas →

Fair Trade turns from a movement into a brand

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Guilt-free indulgence

We stopped buying chocolate after seeing a March 2010 BBC Panorama report about child slavery on cocoa plantations in western Africa. Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire produce 60 percent of the world’s cocoa, and much of the picking is done by children who are sold to plantations by their impoverished parents or human traffickers. Some cooperatives that had been approved for Fair Trade status were later found to have used child labor and suspended from receiving the designation by the Fair Trade Foundation. That meant their cocoa could not be used in chocolate that received the Fair Trade label, which indicates that production followed certain standards and producers were being paid a “fair” price for their wares. The BBC’s point was that almost any chocolate that did not bear the Fair Trade label was likely to have been produced by slave labor.

Once or twice a year, however, we do buy Fair Trade chocolate from People Tree Japan through a local food cooperative. People Tree is a non-profit group that specializes in Fair Trade products from all over the world. According to the organization’s literature, the cocoa that goes into their chocolate bars is produced in various South American countries and Ghana, and then processed in Switzerland under the People Tree brand. Shipments of the chocolate to People Tree are not continuous. When the NPO receives a periodic shipment they announce it through their various distributors, and apparently stocks sell out rather quickly. The chocolate isn’t cheap: ¥290 for a 50-gram bar. At your local supermarket you can buy the same size chocolate bar made by Meiji, Morinaga or any other major confectionery company for as low as ¥100. Does the People Tree chocolate taste better? That’s a matter of personal preference, but chocolate is chocolate. In any case, it’s apparent that people buy it because of the Fair Trade label.

Continue reading about Fair Trade products →

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