The Foodex 2023 Trade Show captured Japan’s attention at a time when it was vulnerable. Its exuberantly large scale, its sumptuous offerings, and its fervently enthusiastic post pandemic exhibitors were all part of the show.
Three plates of vegan sushi were a symbol for the problem. The plates looked like they were displaying real raw tuna, salmon, and squid. These offerings, made entirely from vegetable matter, may have been a preview of the menus that Japan will be serving in the future.
On one level, Foodex was just business as usual. Producers of food from all over the world were lured by the lucrative prospect to sell to the cuisine-obsessed Japan. Their efforts have historically paid off handsomely – Japanese agricultural imports reached $70.2bn by 2022. While this year’s Tokyo event brought food producers to a market that is increasingly dependent on imported calories it was evident that Japan has become more worried about that level. In 2021, Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate stood at 38 per cent — only marginally higher than the record low set in the previous year, and a far cry from the government’s target of 45 per cent self-sufficiency by 2030. And, since then, as the cost of imported ingredients — and even animal feed — has soared following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Japanese consumers’ sensitivity to high prices has only increased. The import model has been shown to be a food system for more predictable times.
The national concern over food security is increasingly being overlaid by the intensifying debates about sustainability. Yoshihiro Suguria, director of Azuma Foods’ sales, said that the country was becoming increasingly anxious over predictions of a worldwide protein shortage, especially for its most popular and celebrated marine products. UN estimates say that by 2050, the global population will be 9.7 billion people.
The risk to fisheries products is particularly high. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been tracking the global fish stock ratio since 1974. At the time of the survey, 90 percent of the global fish stocks were at biologically sustainable levels. In 2019, the ratio had fallen to only 64,6 per cent.
Sugiura says that this collapse is a huge concern for a company like Azuma. Azuma began as a traditional fish trading company. “Global warming made the supply chain unstable, and we realized that it was not sustainable for ingredients any longer,” says Sugiura.
The company is experimenting to make seafood that looks authentic and tastes good without using animal products.
He says that in the beginning, the focus would be on offering vegan and allergen free sushi and sashimi products. He admits that the demand is small but could account for between 1 and 3 percent of Japan’s raw fish market.
Sugiura says that “in the long term, we know a crisis in protein is coming.” “We know that a shortage will come and at that time, the market can grow domestically as well as overseas.”
The company is researching vegan alternatives to make the popular crabsticks, a product which is already made from fish such as pollock or other species.
Sugiura says, “Again we are looking at the global future supply with a crisis-like sense and how to achieve sustainable development.”
Azuma’s Future Fish, as it is called, is made from powdered konjac – a root veggie – and its malleability to create a substance that has a texture surprising like raw fish – tuna, salmon, and squid initially, but other products are being developed. The products include a plant based version of ikura, a popular roe of salmon that is a staple in Japanese cuisine.
The company also began shipping a vegan Shrimp using starch, konjac and moulded in an authentic looking shape. It has found customers among food manufacturers and restaurant experimenting with vegan pizza and salads.
The company claims that the products appear quite real from a distance. However, Sugiura acknowledges that discerning diners can tell it’s not real.
Azuma has a closely guarded recipe for recreating Azuma’s taste. Konjac has a bland taste and any flavouring that would make it more like real seafood must be made without animal products. Sugiura says that the Foodex show was an opportunity to receive honest feedback about the company’s efforts before the planned release of fake fish in supermarkets in Japan, in July.
Azuma’s not the only company that has recognized the potential for a huge demand for alternative seafood. Nippon Ham, a Japanese company that for many years has been a leading provider of animal products in Japan, has entered the market with non-meat alternatives. The company launched a product that mimicked fried fish, but used soyabeans extracts and seaweed.