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Japan’s craze for Philippine bananas

November 25, 2010

HIDDEN AGENDA By Mary Ann Ll. Reyes
(The Philippine Star) Updated November 24, 2010 12:00 AM

Being in Japan upon the invitation of Epson brings to mind how big this market is. It’s really a wonder how Japan has recovered in just over six decades after it was devastated by two atomic bombs to end its war against the Philippines’ number one ally, the United States of America.

Japan’s 128-million consumer base (2008 data) imports a total of $551 billion worth of merchandise from the world, making it the fourth largest importer in the world. Its per capita GDP of $35,271 allows the well-educated and discriminating Japanese consumers to buy what they want but require the highest quality standards.

Although Japan and the Philippines were against each other during WWII, they have both patched up and now enjoy a healthy trade. We buy a lot of Japanese made vehicles and electronic products while they require our services and a lot of our bananas.

The Philippines is supplying more than 90 percent of Japan’s bananas making it our biggest market, on top of Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, in that order. Together with 29 other export markets, the value of Japan’s imports of bananas from the Philippines represents 33.2 percent of the total banana exports of the Philippines.

Why are the Japanese going bananas over Philippine bananas?

About two years ago, Japanese women went for the morning banana diet, which has become so popular. Philippine bananas were considered the best and it commanded a higher price. Japanese women who want to lose weight associate quality bananas with the Philippines.

Philippine bananas, specifically from Mindanao, are considered one of the best, if not the best in the world. The Japanese market is the best testimonial to our bananas. The Japanese imposes the most stringent requirements for whatever products it buys. Most specially, for food products.

A Philippine-based NGO even failed to convince the Japanese that Philippine bananas are not safe to eat because plantations in Mindanao are aerially sprayed with low-dose fungicide. The anti-aerial spray NGO wanted Japanese consumers to pressure banana plantation to stop using aerial spray in protecting their bananas from sigatoka, a leaf disease that if not checked will reduce productivity.

Their campaign did not fly because Japanese authorities actually require aerially sprayed bananas to make sure that they are free from diseases when they enter Japan. They have very strict standards.

The Japanese are known to have healthy lifestyles and eating bananas is already part of their culture because of the fruit’s numerous health benefits. It is also known to be a natural remedy for a range of illnesses and conditions. It is the favorite fruit of athletes because its three natural sugars – fructose, glucose, and sucrose – when combined with its fiber, are energy boosters.

Among others, bananas are known to have high potassium, an essential mineral that prevents muscle cramps, and it is also important for bone strength. Bananas are high in the B vitamins, rich in iron, and many other vital minerals and vitamins.

Bananas are cultivated and harvested in so many tropical countries and many of them are also targeting Japan and other Philippine markets. A recent report indicated that, “Ecuador’s association of smaller banana growers has set its sights on exporting to the Middle East, Africa and China as an alternative to its main importer, Europe.”

Iran and China are the second and third largest markets of the Philippines. Iran recently slowed down its importation of Philippine bananas because of UN sanctions, including its financial activities, against the Middle East country. Iran can’t pay for its imports, which resulted in a decline in banana imports from Japan.

Indonesia is another country developing its banana industry. Halmahera, an island in Indonesia, is luring Filipinos to help develop their banana plantations. A Filipino executive was recently fired by his multinational employer, which is engaged in banana production in Mindanao, for moonlighting. The executive took a vacation but was discovered that he accepted a consultancy job in Halmahera.

The problems besetting the banana industry are untimely since the Christmas season is fast approaching. Although China is said to be increasing its importation of bananas, Philippine suppliers are not assured that they can supply the bulk of the requirements. The loss of the Iranian market is a big blow and its volume can’t be shifted to China overnight. There will be other countries competing to supply the Chinese with their banana requirements.

The Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA) is looking to the Philippine government for help. PBGEA has presented to Senator Teofisto “TG” Guingona Jr., a six-point package of options to mitigate the negative impact of Iran’s inability to buy Philippine bananas. Two other senators, Francis Pangilinan and Serge Osmeña, together with Guingona, are scheduled to conduct a public hearing in Davao City, early next month, to find solutions to the banana industry’s woes.

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