TOKYO -- Japan is set to test the feasibility of exporting more fast-perishing fruits and vegetables by ship, rather than by air.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is teaming up on the project with the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, known as Zen-Noh, and Yusen Logistics. The initial plan is to ship produce to Malaysia in air-conditioned containers that keep temperatures and oxygen levels low.
Japan aims to boost exports of farm products and other foodstuffs to 1 trillion yen ($9.76 billion) by 2020. The ministry reckons more maritime shipments would help tap growing demand for Japanese fruits and vegetables around Asia, including markets such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. It sees a chance to clear the target earlier than planned.
The farm ministry will cover half of the trial expenses, drawing on its supplementary budget for fiscal 2015, which ended in March.
Zen-Noh and Yusen plan to ship peaches and grapes to Malaysia from a port in the Kanto region, which encompasses Tokyo, in July. Strawberry exports are to follow this winter.
Among quick-spoiling produce, grapes are Japan's biggest export, with 1.5 billion yen worth of them sent abroad in 2015. That was a fivefold increase from 2011. Strawberry exports quadrupled in value.
Ships are used for a mere 0.1% of the strawberry exports, and 26% of the grapes. Amaou strawberries, a premium brand produced mainly on Japan's southwestern island of Kyushu, are picked in the morning and airlifted to Hong Kong for display on store shelves the following afternoon.
The prevalence of aerial transport means freight expenses account for about one-third of Japanese strawberry prices in Hong Kong. Customers in Taiwan and other markets pay three to four times more than Japanese shoppers.
Maritime shipping is estimated to reduce transport outlays to one-fifth, or even one-tenth, of the current costs. The difference would show up on price tags.
By fiscal 2020, the ministry plans to raise the ratio of seaborne strawberry exports to 20%. It wants to boost the figure for grapes to 50%.
Meanwhile, the ministry is also looking to meet demand for out-of-season produce.
Appetite for grapes in greater China, for example, increases during the Lunar New Year period in January and February. Trouble is, they come into season in the summer and autumn in Japan.
So in addition to air-conditioned containers, the ministry intends to support the development of wrapping technology that would keep fruits and vegetables fresh, allowing exports at other times of year.