Japan and the Netherlands combine know-how and technology to fight labor shortages and waste in the supply chain
Japan's population is aging. As a result, the agricultural sector is experiencing labor shortages. The combination of Japanese robotics technology and Dutch greenhouse know-how can help solve this problem and - just as important - contribute to making the sustainable production of food more effective, says agricultural advisor Yuko Saito, who is part of the LAN team in Tokyo, Japan. This article is part of a series on the agricultural advisors who play a key role in the Netherlands Agricultural Network (LAN) worldwide.
Japan is an island nation with a large population of 125 million. Unfortunately, its self-sufficiency ratio is only 38 per cent. 'As the population is aging, so are Japanese farmers,' says Yuko Saito. 'In fact, their average age is 68. At the same time, there are not enough new farmers to meet the growing demand for healthy, high quality food products. Since Japan’s agriculture is dependent on the import from other countries, the rising prices of fertilizer, feed and fuel following the Russian war in Ukraine have heightened the already existing sense of crisis over food security.’
The scale of most producers is a challenge in Japan. How do you deal with that?
'The average size of a Japanese greenhouse farm is 0.2 hectares. If a greenhouse is larger than 1 hectare, it is considered a large-scale greenhouse. This is quite different from the situation of greenhouse horticulture in the Netherlands. However, the number of large-scale modern greenhouses is on the rise. The Japanese government is promoting the introduction of large-scale next-generation greenhouses with advanced Dutch horticultural technology combined with sustainable local energy. We see a lot of opportunities for the Netherlands to collaborate with Japan in the process of further developing Japan’s agriculture.’
Why the focus on greenhouse robotics?
'Because of the aging problem I mentioned, Japan is facing labor shortage issues and needs more automation and labor-saving technologies. While the Netherlands has a world-class reputation in greenhouse horticulture, Japan is seen as a strategic partner for robotic solutions. Both countries have unique capabilities and expertise. We hope to combine these two to develop innovative, cutting-edge solutions for the greenhouse markets around the globe.’
‘Robotics and high tech not only save labor but can also solve several global challenges. With the help of data and high tech, production and demand can be more readily forecast which means that food waste and loss in the supply chain can be reduced. We think the collaboration will not only help our two countries but also the world at large, by contributing to sustainable food production goals.'
'In July last year, an Innovation Mission consisting of Dutch companies and research institutes visited Japan and explored potential interest in collaboration. The mission resulted in 6 use cases, which are potential research projects, and further in-depth discussions with potential Japanese partners are currently being organized.’
What can you tell us about your work and the LAN-team in Tokyo?
'We are four people. There is Denise Lutz, of course, who has been our agricultural counsellor since 2021. And Chitose Hatakoshi, who is our agricultural officer. Ryoko Matsumoto is our management assistant. And then there's me.'
'Japan is a big importer of traditional export commodities like cheese and pork. But we have also seen an increase in requests and inquiries about less traditional ones, such as plant-based products or organic vegetables. I've also been involved in the bilateral Dialogue on Agricultural Cooperation between the ministries of agriculture of our two countries. The dialogue started in 2017 to promote the exchange of knowledge and expertise on topics of mutual interest.'
'It is our job to support Dutch companies and research institutes in collaborating with Japanese partners and in their efforts to contribute to sustainable food systems. Additionally, we organize collective activities such as missions to and from Japan, seminars/webinars, and network receptions in close collaboration with partners such as the agriculture ministries of both countries, Netherlands Enterprise Agency, research institutes such as Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and Oost NL, a regional development agency whose representative is currently stationed in the Netherlands Embassy in Tokyo for three months.'
What influence does climate change have on food security in Japan?
‘The effects of climate change are seen in a wide range of agricultural fields. We have growth failure and quality decline of crops, lower milk yield and quality, and lower growth rates of cattle, pigs and chickens. Increased outbreaks of pests and diseases, landslides and flooding also have a significant impact. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) revised its Climate Change Adaptation Plan in October 2021. To avoid or mitigate damage, the development and dissemination of production technologies and varieties that adapt to climate change are being promoted.'
‘In May 2021, MAFF announced a new sustainable food systems strategy called MeaDRI. MeaDRI is equivalent to the EU's Farm to Fork strategy and sets a number of ambitious goals, such as zero emissions of fossil fuel-derived CO2 in agriculture, forestry and fisheries; a 50 per cent reduction in the risk-weighted use of chemical pesticides; a 30 per cent reduction in the use of chemical fertilizer; and increasing organic farming to 1 million hectares (equivalent to 25 per cent of agricultural land), all of which must be realized by 2050. Energy-saving greenhouses, electric or hydrogen powered agricultural machinery and vessels, precision application of pesticides using drones and AI are all examples of technologies that can be used to achieve these goals.’
What do you do to help promote sustainable food production?
‘Both our countries’ commitment to realize a sustainable food system takes center stage in the bilateral Dialogue on Agricultural Cooperation that I mentioned. A few times a year we organize sessions bringing together government, research and industry representatives from both countries for discussions on potential collaboration towards the shared goals.’
‘To give you a few examples, we organized meetings on livestock biomass (about the challenges and opportunities for attaining a more circular agriculture by increasing the use of livestock biomass (manure) and promoting a sustainable livestock industry) and zero emissions in greenhouses (about the efforts towards achieving zero emissions, involving various technologies for energy saving but also for using alternative energy sources). For future sessions biomass (manure and food waste), reduction of greenhouse gasses in livestock production, resilient crops, alternative proteins, and automation for greenhouse horticulture are considered as topics.’
'To promote science, technology and innovation Japan and the Netherlands are eager to collaborate through combining unique capabilities and expertise on agri-food and horticulture’
The National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) in Japan works closely together with Wageningen University & Research (WUR). What role do research and development play?
'Our government is making bold investments in research and innovation. In the 6th Science, Technology and Innovation Basic Plan announced in April 2021, the government wants to invest a maximum of 30 trillion yen in government R&D and 120 trillion yen in R&D between the public and private sector over 5 years, from 2021 to 2025. In the agri-food sector, R&D projects are promoted that help solve issues faced by farmers, as well as more medium- to long-term projects, such as developing countermeasures against global warming. Sustainable and healthy food, carbon neutrality and resource recycling, and smart agriculture are important themes for future R&D.’
As you said, the NARO and WUR have a good working relationship. A NARO liaison scientist is stationed at WUR to strengthen that cooperation. The placement of the NARO liaison scientist was facilitated by a Memorandum of Understanding signed by both parties during the plenary session of the Dialogue on Agricultural Cooperation in November 2017. The two research institutes, with the support of the LAN office in Tokyo, initiated and collaborate closely in the project Transition Towards a Data driven Agriculture - for a new Dutch & Japanese Potato Circular Value Chain (in short TTADDA). The project aims to provide novel sensor applications and artificial intelligence (AI) tools to digitize potato production systems, thereby increasing yields and productivity and reducing emissions and inputs such as water and pesticides. Therefore, the project results are expected to contribute to sustainability and food security.’
What do you like to do in your spare time?
'I live in Tokyo right now, but I love to relax by the sea or go hiking in Kanagawa, which is just south of Tokyo and is not far from Mt. Fuji and other nature areas. Since I'm originally from that region, I like to catch up with my family and friends as well. At the moment, the cherry blossoms are in bloom in Tokyo. Cherry blossom viewing is big in Japan, so it is an exciting time of year for us. Another hobby of mine is yoga. I had an accident two years ago when I fell of my bike and suffered some serious physical injuries. Yoga seems to help me with that.'
Any plans for an Innovation Mission to the Netherlands?
'As I mentioned earlier, an Innovation Mission from the Netherlands came to Japan last year. They visited potential partners and different locations. This year we are planning to send a Japanese mission to the Netherlands in June, around the time of Greentech. It is an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with partners from both countries. I will be accompanying this mission and am very much looking forward to that.'
‘Additionally Oost NL together with other parties in the Netherlands will organize a trade & innovate mission to Japan in the fall with a focus on digitalization and automation in greenhouses.’