Imports of fresh vegetables have recently been on the increase. According to the Finance Ministry’s trade statistics, imports of vegetables amounted to 93,000 tons last December, up 30 percent from a year before, marking a year-on-year rise for four consecutive months. This was due to rising prices of domestically grown vegetables brought about by poor crops. If the situation remains as it is, imported vegetables could become established in the Japanese market. Domestic growers should step up cooperation with food dealers and restaurants to maintain their position in the market.
Vegetable imports had been marking a year-on-year drop in the period between September 2012 and August 2013. Imports remained low because of the low yen and rising prices of onions from China, the main product among imported vegetables, which suffered a poor harvest in the first half of 2013.
The yearly imports in 2013 dropped 10 percent from the previous year to some 816,000 tons, but as for the latter half of 2013, vegetable imports totaled 400,000 tons, the highest amount in the last five years. Although the yen continued to remain low at a level of around 100 yen to the dollar, which means the market conditions were not so favorable for imported goods, imports are clearly on an increasing trend since last September.
In terms of individual items, imports of onions, cabbages and lettuces showed a conspicuous increase in the latter half of 2013. Shipments of onions rose 20 percent from a year before to some 180,000 tons, as the harvesting areas in China, the main exporter, shifted and prices dropped, while the prices of domestically-grown onions rose, as Hokkaido, the major production area in Japan, had a poor harvest due to the hot, dry summer. Imports of green vegetables also increased largely, with shipments of cabbages tripling from a year before to 13,000 tons and those of lettuces rising 30 percent to 4,000 tons.
We fear that imported vegetables will hold a firm position in the Japanese market. Harvests of domestically-grown lettuces have been poor for two consecutive years, and imports of Taiwanese lettuces are increasing as a means of hedging against risks of unstable supply. Until a decade ago, lettuces were mainly imported cut and packed from the United States. It used to be difficult to import unprepared whole lettuces because they needed to go through fumigation if worms were found inside them.
However, recently, whole lettuces imported from Taiwan are in high demand, as Japanese importers have taken thorough hygiene management measures such as providing production guidance to local growers and introducing vacuum precooling before shipment. One lettuce importer said that the quality of Taiwanese lettuces in December is even better than that of domestically-grown ones. Imported lettuces are popular among prepared food product firms and restaurants which give priority to stable supply of ingredients. At some major restaurant chains, Taiwanese lettuces occupy as much as half of all lettuces used in winter. Importers say that because of recent poor harvests at home, more restaurant chains and food dealers will try to obtain imported lettuces in advance next year. As supermarket chains are expanding sales of cut vegetables on the backdrop of increasing needs for prepared foods, manufacturers of cut vegetables are also paying high attention to imported lettuces.
Some of the domestic vegetable growing regions, fearing that the market could be dominated by imported goods, are working to secure stable supply, such as through increasing the amount of planting during the coldest season of the year and selecting farms which can constantly deliver the contracted amount. According to a survey conducted on distributors by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 2011, only 0.6 percent said they want to increase shipments of imported products, while 42 percent answered they want to increase shipments of domestically-grown vegetables. In order to meet the needs of the domestic market, vegetable growers should reinforce cooperation with their customers.
(Feb. 5, 2014)