Japanese radish farmers fear the future amid climate change

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese farmer Masahiro Hoshina began worrying about typhoon season months before it began, haunted by memories of torrential rains and landslides that washed away wasabi farms during one storm in 2019.

“Recently, the strength of typhoons looks very different than before because of global warming. They are getting stronger,” said the 70-year-old farmer in Okutama, west of central Tokyo.

“Since it happened once, there is no guarantee that it will not happen again.”

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Wasabi, the refreshing Japanese radish that is an essential part of sushi and is put on slices of raw fish or in bowls of buckwheat noodle soup, is usually grown along streams in narrow valleys, leaving farms vulnerable to disaster.

Typhoon Hagibis, which hit eastern Japan in 2019, cut production in Okutama by about 70% the following year. The need for re-cultivation and careful care meant that it took nearly three years for the sushi farms there to recover. (Photo essay: https://reut.rs/3AFtYSQ)

Experts say that global warming is affecting production not only by increasing the number and intensity of storms, but by rising temperatures that threaten the growth of plants, which must be in water with a constant temperature of 10-15 degrees Celsius throughout the year.

A lack of wasabi can also jeopardize traditional Japanese foods such as sushi and sashimi, as wasabi tang is used in contrast to raw fish.

Weather isn’t the only obstacle that wasabi growers face. Declining rural population due to old age means no successors. Because of these two factors, wasabi production in clear, flowing waters, such as a Hoshina farm, has fallen to half what it was in 2005, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Norihito Onishi, chief sales manager at a chain of soba buckwheat noodle restaurants called Sojibo, saw that his company had been directly affected by the wasabi shortage and supply problems.

Restaurants have long been famous for allowing customers to grind their own wasabi roots to produce the spice paste used as a soba seasoning. But they mostly had to give up on this.

“In the past, we used to serve all kinds of cold soba noodles with a piece of raw wasabi, but now we can no longer do that,” said Onishi.

Although the wasabi root was plentiful when the restaurant first opened 30 years ago, Onishi said that in the past five to 10 years there have been times when he hasn’t been able to get any at all. The precious root is now only available for certain types of dishes.

“If this unstable supply of wasabi continues, due to many factors including global warming, we will face a situation where we need to find other ways to get around the problem so that we don’t end up not serving raw wasabi at all,” Onishi said.

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Additional reporting by Rikako Maruyama by Elaine Laiss. Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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