And Finally

Grapes of wrath

Japanese anger over Chinese viticulture


From Japan, grown in China

How much would you pay for a single strawberry or a bunch of grapes? And does it matter where the fruit comes from?

If you were Japanese the answer to the latter question would be yes. It matters a lot. A single bijin-hime strawberry grown on a farm in Gifu Prefecture sells for about $400. And earlier this summer, some Ruby Roman grapes from Ishikawa prefecture were auctioned off for ¥1.4 million ($12,700) a bunch, breaking records for the third year in a row (the purchaser runs a Japanese-style supermarket chain in Taiwan).

Unfortunately the Japanese have been slow to recognise the value of the place-of-origin branding that protects the reputation of their native fruits from a large competitor on their doorstep – one which sees rich pickings from cultivating the same varieties: China.

What makes the situation worse is that many of these Japanese fruits have taken decades to develop. In some cases, valuable seed IP was then lost to the Chinese, who are now vastly outstripping Japan in production terms.

Case in point: the sought-after Shine Muscat grape. In a recent article the Nikkei Shimbun relates the sorry tale of how companies in China are now harvesting about 50 times more of the grape than Japan.

This seedless variety is particularly prized because it’s not only bigger than most table grapes but it also benefits from a thick, juicy skin, which keeps it fresher for longer.

It is also a good fruit for gifting. Jiemian News describes it as the Hermès of grapes, sold domestically in China under brands such as Sunshine Rose or Incense Jade.

The Japanese first developed Shine Muscat grapes in the 1980s by crossing an Akitsu 21 grape with a Hakunan one. Farmers were soon commercialising production but crucially the grape was only registered for domestic sale with no thought about the seed’s export.

By the time the government realised its mistake Chinese farmers had already taken advantage. Li Chunyu, from China’s Haitang Sunshine Muscat Marketing Alliance says that it took a number of years to perfect their own yields by importing plenty of seedlings and translating lots of Japanese language materials along the way.

Earlier this year, Tokyo belatedly introduced a law banning exports of certain fruit seeds. However, both the Chinese and Japanese press agree that the legislation has come too late for the Shine Muscat grape.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences forecasts that acreage of Shine Muscat production in China has already expanded to one million mu (66,666 hectares), rising 25% in a single year. This is having a predictable toll on prices, which plunged for the first time last year.

Jiemian notes that Shine Muscat was first cultivated at scale by Chinese growers in 2015. But because of the grape’s surging popularity and the then limited local supply (in 2016 only tens of thousands of mu had been planted) prices were soon peaking at Rmb150 ($23.20) per catty (a unit of measurement equivalent to about 500 grams). As acreage expanded, however, the market was flooded with local Shine Muscat grapes, so much so that the price plunged to just Rmb15 per catty this year – damaging the grape’s ‘luxury’ image in the local market.

In Japan a catty of the very best gift-grade Shine Muscat grapes costs ¥10,000 or about Rmb600 – vastly more than their Chinese equivalent. That means opportunities to export the Japanese-pioneered grape to the Chinese market have diminished. Presumably Japanese shoppers will need to keep an eye out for Chinese importers trying to pass off their own grapes as local ones too.

Does it really matter if Chinese farmers start producing other upmarket fruits too? Li of the grape’s marketing body admits there are quality issues domestically because farmers are prioritising quantity over quality. This would be anathema in Japan, where quality is sacrosanct for producers. In the longer term, the same instinct may protect the Japanese growers appeal to the most discerning consumers. But in the meantime the story of Shine Muscat grapes exemplifies a Chinese trend seen in industry after industry: hone in on a product, massively ratchet up supply and watch as the price collapses…

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