The agreement, signed at the Natural Products Expo East trade show in Baltimore, is the first such agreement in the Asian market and the first-ever for US producers that provides full organic equivalency. The agreement means the two countries recognize each others standards and certifications, and as far as their organic status is concerned, products can move back and forth much as travelers cross borders in Europe without passports. A producer certified in Japan as organic by that country’s authorities will be fully recognized as such in the US market and vice versa.
Jobs and profits generator
The agreement is expected to create jobs and opportunity for the U.S. organic food and farming sector.
"This monumental agreement will further create jobs in the already growing U.S. organic sector, spark additional market growth, and be mutually beneficial to producers both in the United States and Japan and to consumers who choose organic products," said Laura Batcha, executive vice president of the Organic Trade Association.
"We are especially encouraged that the larger shared values and practices relative to organic and sustainable food production between us are no longer overshadowed by minor, technical difficulties," said Andy Berliner, founder of Amy's Kitchen.
"This agreement is vital to specialty crop growers, who number more than 2,000 in California alone. These producers will be able to expand sales in a vibrant Japanese market," said Cathy Calfo, executive director of the California Certified Organic Farmers trade group.
The US exports more organic products to Japan than it imports, according to the USDA. The biggest organic exports are soybeans, vegetables, nuts and specialty products like frozen meals. Japan sends organic green tea, sake and mushrooms to the US.
The agreement could help bolster an already thriving sector in the US. Sales of organic products have risen 4% to 5% a year with annual sales now reaching $35 billion.
In June 2009, the United States and Canada signed the first equivalency agreement in the world for the organic industry. This was followed with an agreement signed by the United States and EU in February 2012 recognizing each other's organic standards as equivalent, fully effective June 12, 2012.
Great for business, but what about consumers?
While the new agreement is seen as good news for manufacturers, it’s a more complicated story for consumers, said Alexis Baden-Mayer, the political director of the Organic Consumers Association.
“OCA advocates for local agriculture and food sovereignty, so there's no great benefit in our view to promoting trade in organic between countries,” Baden-Mayer told FoodNavigator-USA.
“Unfortunately, it's rare that standards go up when trade agreements are negotiated. Countries tend to meet at the lowest common denominator. OCA doesn't want standards for food production to be decided in trade agreements. It should be up to the Japanese people to decide how the food they eat is produced, and we want the same right of food sovereignty here in the US,” she said.
Baden-Mayer said it’s her understanding that the crux of the lengthy process of marrying US and Japanese organic standards had to do with objections to two substances allowed in US organic foods that were not approved in Japan. Those are lignin sulfonate, a substance used in post-harvest fruit production, and alkali-extracted humic acid, a fertilizer used to help grow a variety of organic crops.
Supply chain complexity
Baden-Mayer said the new agreement doesn’t necessarily address the increasing complexity of supply chains. Do agreements between countries have relevance when ingredients might come from a globally distributed web of suppliers?
“In order to be exported to the US under this arrangement, Japanese organic products must be produced within Japan or have their final processing or packaging occur within Japan. Food will be coming from all over the world to Japan to be processed and packaged for sale as organic in the US. It will be up to the Japanese to protect against fraud and standards violations in the products they ship the US,” she said.
Also of concern is the question of lingering contamination from Japan’s nuclear disaster. Baden-Mayer did admit that this is a weakness of certification schemes and standards in general, in that they can’t account for rapidly changing conditions.
“These concerns aren't particular to organic and they're not addressed by organic standards. No organic standard that I'm aware of is designed to address contamination problems related to disasters like the one at Fukushima, or the BP oil spill, or the chronic pollution related to extractive industries and the exploitation of fossil fuels worldwide,” she said.
“It's just one more problem of an increasingly global supply chain; there are a lot of things we won't know about where our food comes from and how it was produced,” Baden-Mayer said.