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11:11 13 April 2016

OPINION: Preserving Japan's unique food culture for future generations

By Marie Haga
TOKYO, April 13, Kyodo

For many people around the world, their first experience of Japanese culture is its food. Japanese cuisine is held in high esteem. And so it came as little surprise that washoku's value as a unique culinary and cultural asset received international recognition from UNESCO in December 2013, when it was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The skills and knowledge associated with washoku have been passed down informally in the home, and in more formal settings such as schools, for generations. They play a profound role in fostering respect for nature and an understanding of the need to use natural resources in a sustainable manner.

One of the principle characteristics of washoku is the use of locally sourced traditional ingredients and indigenous crop types. Given the social and cultural significance of native crops it is laudable that Japan is taking its role as custodian of indigenous crop diversity so seriously. Institutions such as the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences and Okayama University have created gene banks to protect crop diversity through the long term storage and preservation of seeds in safe and secure environments. In total, there are 302,235 crop accessions held within Japan's national system. These measures ensure that this resource will remain available to future generations.

There is also a network of plant gene banks worldwide holding some 7.4 million crop accessions and the importance of their role is becoming ever more manifest. Climate change and more variable weather, new varieties of pests and diseases, and wider pressures on agricultural land are putting crop diversity under threat. Even the gene banks themselves are at risk, from natural and man-made disasters, and from a lack of secure funding.

A decade ago, in response to these numerous threats, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Biodiversity International founded the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The Crop Trust is the only global organization working to guarantee the conservation of crop diversity, forever.

We are already working closely with Japanese partners to protect Japan's unique food heritage. To cite just one example, Okayama University has stored a backup seed collection at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic, which is supported by the Crop Trust. This was undertaken in response to concerns about the potential loss of resources at the University's own gene bank in the wake of the Great Eastern Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011. In addition, the Crop Trust has supported Japanese scientists and plant breeders in developing new resources. Between 2004 and 2015, Japan received more than 8,000 crop accessions from international collections supported by the Crop Trust.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault continues to play an essential role in efforts to preserve crop diversity worldwide. It will open its doors once again on March 1 this year, to accept a deposit of seeds from the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Chapattana Foundation, which promotes sustainable development, among others. We also expect a further deposit of Japanese seeds by Okayama University within the next months.

In the immediate future, our partnership program with Japan will expand as the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) launches a joint research project for conservation of crop genetic resources. This effort takes the strategic approach to evaluate rice collections for traits relevant to climate change adaptation, and to achieve tangible impacts on food security and livelihoods in Africa. Rice is an invaluable crop that feeds nearly half of the world's people, and it exists in around 200,000 different varieties across the world.

The Agriculture Ministers of the G7 will meet in Niigata in April, under the presidency of Japan. Whilst crop diversity is at great risk of being lost, Japan's global leadership could bring its lasting conservation ever closer. This would not only be in the self interest of Japan, but would also be in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals which, in their Target 2.5, call for protecting crop diversity globally by 2020.

By joining the international partnership to support the work of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and by securing the future availability of its own crop diversity, Japan is taking important steps to preserve the vital ingredients of washoku. It is my hope that, as a global community and with Japan's ongoing involvement, we can learn from those principles of respect for nature and the sustainable use of natural resources that are fundamental components of the Japanese food culture.

(Marie Haga is the executive director of the Crop Trust, an organization based in Bonn, Germany working for the conservation of crop diversity for food security.)

==Kyodo

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