The secret behind delicious Japanese strawberries: Kerosene

MINOH, Japan — Strawberry biscuits. Strawberry mochi. Strawberry à la mode.

These sound like summer delights. But in Japan, the strawberry crop peaks in winter – the chilly season of picturesque berries, the most spotless ones selling for hundreds of dollars apiece for special gifts.

Japan’s strawberries come with some environmental fees. To recreate an artificial spring during the winter months, farmers grow out-of-season delicacies in giant greenhouses that are heated by giant gas-hungry fireplaces.

“We’ve come to a point where many people think it’s natural to have strawberries in the winter,” said Satoko Yoshimura, a strawberry farmer in Minoh, Japan, just outside of Osaka. , when temperatures can drop below freezing.

But as she continued to fuel her heater, she said, she began to think, “What are we doing?”

Of course, fruits and vegetables are grown in greenhouses around the world. However, the Japanese strawberry industry has gone to such extremes that most farmers have stopped growing strawberries during the warmer months, a much less lucrative growing season actually. Instead, in the summer, Japan imports most of its strawberry supply.

It’s an example of how modern expectations of year-round fresh produce can require incredible amounts of energy, contributing to climate warming, in exchange for strawberries (or tomatoes or cucumbers). ) even when the temperature is dropping.

Until a few decades ago, strawberry season in Japan started in spring and lasted until early summer. However, the Japanese market has a tradition of appreciating early-season produce, or “hatsumono,” from tuna to rice and tea. A crop that requires a hatsumomo coating can fetch prices many times higher than usual, and even go viral in the mass media.

As the country’s consumer economy took off, the hatsumomo race spilled over to strawberries. Farms began to compete to bring strawberries to market earlier and earlier in the year. Daisuke Miyazaki, chief executive officer of Ichigo Tech, a strawberry consulting firm based in Tokyo, said: “The peak strawberry season lasts from April to March to February to January and finally to the end of the season. is Christmas.

Strawberries are now a Christmas staple in Japan, decorating Christmas cakes sold across the country throughout December. Mr. Miyazaki said some farmers have already started shipping them. first-season strawberries in November. (Recently, a perfect Japanese-branded strawberry, Oishii (meaning “delicious”), has become popular on TikTok, but it’s grown by a Chinese company. United in New Jersey.)

Japan’s move towards growing strawberries in cold weather has made strawberry farming significantly more energy-intensive. According to analyzes of greenhouse gas emissions related to various products in Japan, the emissions of strawberries are about 8 times that of grapes and more than 10 times that of citrus.

“It all comes down to heating,” said Naoki Yoshikawa, a researcher in environmental science at Shiga Prefectural University in western Japan who led research on manufacturing emissions. “And we looked at all aspects, including transportation or what it takes to produce fertilizer – even then, heating has the biggest hit.”

Examples like these further complicate the idea of ​​eating locally, specifically the idea adopted by some environmentally conscious shoppers when purchasing food that is produced relatively close, partially. to cut fuel and transportation-related pollution.

Shelie Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan who focuses on climate, food and sustainability, said transporting food often has less of an impact on the climate than the way it is produced. For example, one study found that tomatoes grown locally in a heated greenhouse in the UK had a higher carbon footprint than tomatoes grown in Spain (outdoor and in season) and were Shipping to supermarkets in the UK.

Climate-controlled greenhouses can have benefits: They can require less land and use fewer pesticides, and they can produce higher yields. But the bottom line, says Professor Miller, is that “it’s ideal if you can eat both seasonally and locally, so your food is produced without the need for extra energy.”

In Japan, the energy required to grow strawberries during the winter is not just a climate burden. It also makes strawberry farming expensive, especially as fuel costs soar, hurting farmers’ profits.

Research and development of berries, as well as sophisticated branding, have helped alleviate some of that pressure by helping farmers sell for a higher price. Strawberries in Japan are sold with funny names like Beni Hoppe (“red cheeks”), Koinoka (“scent of love”), Bijin Hime (“pretty princess”). Along with other expensive fruits like watermelon, they are often given as gifts.

Tochigi, a prefecture north of Tokyo that produces more strawberries than anywhere else in Japan, has been working to tackle climate and cost challenges with a new strawberry called Tochiaika, a version of it. Short for “Tochigi’s favorite fruit. “

seven After years of research by agronomists at Tochigi’s Strawberry Research Institute, this new variety is larger, more disease-resistant and yields higher from the same inputs, making cultivation more economical. more energy efficient.

Tochiaika strawberries also have firmer skins, reducing the number of strawberries damaged during transit, thereby reducing food waste, which also has climate consequences. In the United States, where strawberries are grown primarily in the warmer climates of California and Florida, strawberry buyers are estimated to have discarded about a third of their production, in part because they are so fragile.

And instead of heaters, some farmers in Tochigi use something called a “water curtain,” a stream of water that wraps around the outside of the greenhouse, keeping the inside temperature constant, although that requires continued access to abundant groundwater resources. “Farmers can save on fuel costs and help combat global warming,” said Takayuki Matsumoto, a member of the team that helped grow Tochiaika strawberries. “It’s ideal.”

There are other efforts going on. Researchers in the northeastern city of Sendai have discovered ways to harness solar energy to keep the temperature inside a strawberry greenhouse warm.

Minoh strawberry farmer Yoshimura worked in agriculture for a decade before deciding she wanted to get rid of her giant industrial heater in the winter of 2021.

As a young mother of one, with another about to be born, she spent most of her days in lockdown reading about climate change. A series of devastating floods in 2018 that destroyed tomato crops at the farm she runs with her husband also made her aware of the dangers of a warming planet. “I realized that I needed to change the way I did farming for the sake of my children,” she said.

But in the Minoh mountains, temperatures can drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, or about minus 7 degrees Celsius, where strawberry plants are usually dormant. So she delved into agricultural research to try to find another way to transport her strawberries during the lucrative winter months without using fossil fuel heating.

She read that strawberries sense temperature through a part of the plant called the top, or short stem that thickens at the base of the plant. She surmised that if she could use groundwater, which usually has a constant temperature, to protect the crown from freezing temperatures, she wouldn’t have to rely on industrial heating.

Ms. Yoshimura has equipped her strawberry beds with a simple irrigation system. For extra insulation at night, she wrapped her strawberries in plastic.

She emphasized that her cultivation methods are in the process of being perfected. But after her berries survived a cold snap in December, she took the industrial heater that was still on standby in a corner of her greenhouse and sold it.

Now, she’s working to get local recognition for her “non-hot” strawberries. “It would be great,” she said, “if we could make strawberries naturally.”


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