The Secret Behind Japan’s Wintry Strawberries

MINOH, Japan — Strawberry Shortcake. Strawberry mochi. Fashion strawberries.

These may sound like summer treats. But in Japan, the strawberry harvest peaks in winter: a cold season of perfect berries, the pristine ones selling for hundreds of dollars each to be given as special gifts.

Strawberries from Japan come at an environmental cost. To recreate an artificial spring in the winter months, farmers grow their delicacies in the off-season in huge greenhouses heated with giant gas-guzzling heaters.

“We’ve reached a point where many people think it’s natural to have strawberries in winter,” said Satoko Yoshimura, a strawberry farmer in Minoh, Japan, just outside Osaka, who until last season burned kerosene to heat her greenhouse throughout the winter. , when temperatures can drop well below freezing.

But as he continued to fill his heater’s tank with fuel, he said, he began to think, “What are we doing?”

Fruits and vegetables are grown in greenhouses all over the world, of course. However, Japan’s strawberry industry has taken it to such an extreme that most farmers have stopped growing strawberries during the much less lucrative warmer months, the actual growing season. In contrast, in summer, Japan imports much of its supply of strawberries.

It’s an example of how modern expectations of fresh produce year-round can require surprising amounts of energy, contributing to a warmer climate in exchange for having strawberries (or tomatoes or cucumbers) even when temperatures are dropping.

Until several decades ago, Japan’s strawberry season began in the spring and lasted until early summer. But the Japanese market has traditionally placed a high value on first-season produce, or “hatsumono,” from tuna to rice and tea. A crop claiming the hatsumomo mantle can fetch prices many times higher than normal, and even snag feverish media coverage.

As the country’s consumer economy took off, the hatsumomo breed spread to strawberries. Farms began competing to get their strawberries to market earlier and earlier in the year. “The peak season for strawberries was from April to March, from February to January, and finally came to Christmas,” said Daisuke Miyazaki, chief executive of Ichigo Tech, a Tokyo-based strawberry consulting firm.

Now, strawberries are a major Christmas staple in Japan, gracing Christmas cakes sold nationwide throughout December. Some growers began shipping the first strawberries of the season in November, Miyazaki said. (Recently, a perfect Japanese brand strawberry, Oishii (meaning “delicious”), has become famous on TikTok, but it’s grown by an American company in New Jersey.)

Japan’s shift towards growing strawberries in icy climates has made strawberry growing significantly more energy intensive. According greenhouse gas emissions analysis Associated with various products in Japan, the emissions footprint of strawberries is approximately eight times that of grapes and more than 10 times that of mandarins.

“It all comes down to heating,” said Naoki Yoshikawa, a researcher in environmental sciences at Shiga Prefectural University in western Japan, who led the product emissions study. “And we look at all aspects, including transportation or what it takes to produce fertilizer; even then, heating had the biggest footprint.”

Examples like these complicate the idea of ​​eating local, that is, the idea embraced by some environmentally conscious shoppers of buying food produced relatively nearby, in part to reduce fuel and pollution associated with shipping.

In general, though, transporting food has less of a climate impact than how it’s produced, said Shelie Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan who focuses on climate, food and sustainability. One study found, for example, that tomatoes grown locally in heated greenhouses in Britain had a higher carbon footprint compared to tomatoes grown in Spain (outdoors and in season) and shipped to UK supermarkets.

Climate-controlled greenhouses can have benefits: they can require less land and use less pesticides, and they can produce higher yields. But the bottom line, Professor Miller said, is that “it’s ideal if you can eat both in season and locally, so that your food is produced without having to add big energy expenditures.”

In Japan, the energy required to grow strawberries in winter has not proven to be just a climatic burden. It has also made growing strawberries expensive, particularly as fuel costs have risen, affecting farmers’ bottom lines.

Research and development of berry varieties, as well as the creation of elaborate brands, have helped alleviate some of those pressures by helping farmers command higher prices. Strawberry varieties in Japan are sold under fancy names such as Beni Hoppe (“red-cheeked”), Koinoka (“love scent”), Bijin Hime (“beautiful princess”). Along with other expensive fruits like watermelons, they are often given as gifts.

Tochigi, a prefecture north of Tokyo that grows more strawberries than any other in Japan, has been working to meet climate and cost challenges with a new strawberry variety it calls Tochiaika, a shortened version of the phrase, “the Tochigi’s beloved fruit”. ”

Seven After years of development by agricultural researchers at the Tochigi Strawberry Research Institute, the new variety is larger, more resistant to disease and produces a higher yield with the same inputs, making it more energy efficient to grow. .

Tochiaika strawberries also have a firmer skin, which reduces the number of strawberries that are damaged during transit, which reduces food waste, which also has climatic consequences. In the United States, where strawberries are grown primarily in warmer climates in California and Florida, about a third of the crop is discarded by strawberry buyers, in part because of how fragile they are.

And instead of heaters, some farmers in Tochigi use something called a “water curtain,” a trickle of water that wraps around the outside of the greenhouses, keeping the inside temperature constant, even though that requires access to plenty of groundwater. “Farmers can save on fuel costs and help fight global warming,” said Takayuki Matsumoto, a member of the team that helped develop the Tochiaika strawberry. “That’s the ideal.”

There are other efforts underway. Researchers in the northeastern city of Sendai have been exploring ways to harness solar energy to keep temperatures inside strawberry greenhouses warm.

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

A young mother of one, with another on the way, had spent much of her pandemic lockdown days reading about climate change. A series of devastating floods in 2018 that destroyed the tomato garden on the farm she runs with her husband also woke her up to the dangers of global warming. “I realized that I needed to change the way I farmed, for the sake of my children,” she said.

But in the Minoh mountain area, temperatures can drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, or around minus 7 degrees Celsius, levels at which strawberry plants would normally go dormant. So he delved into agricultural studies to try to find another way to ship his strawberries during the lucrative winter months, without using fossil fuel heating.

She read that strawberries sense temperature through a part of the plant known as the crown, or the short, thick stem at the base of the plant. If she could use groundwater, which is usually kept at a constant temperature, to protect the crown from freezing temperatures, she wouldn’t have to rely on industrial heating, she supposed.

Mrs. Yoshimura equipped her strawberry beds with a simple irrigation system. For additional insulation at night, she covered her strawberries with plastic.

She emphasizes that her cultivation methods are a work in progress. But after her berries survived a cold snap in December, she took her industrial heater, which had been sitting on standby in a corner of her greenhouse, and sold it.

Now, he’s working to gain local recognition for his “unheated” strawberries. “It would be nice,” he said, “if we could make strawberries when it’s natural.”