February 20, 2015
Paraguayan sesame seeds (Escoba variety)
Japanese people are among the biggest consumers of sesame seeds. Japan relies largely on imports and the total amount imported annually comes to approximately 160,000 tons (1). Latin American countries produce the sesame seeds Japan imports, especially edible white ones. Japan depends on three countries for 90 percent of its imported white sesame seeds: Paraguay, Guatemala and Bolivia. Seventy percent of the production is from Paraguay.
Some 7,000 Japanese descendants (Nikkei) currently live in Paraguay. Since 1936, when approximately 300 Japanese people immigrated to the country, they have mainly engaged in agriculture and forest industry work.
“The trust Japanese descendants have built is the foundation of the trust in Japan in Latin America,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in his speech in Brazil during his visit to Latin America in July and August 2014. The existence of Japanese descendants (Nikkei) in Latin American is the key to fostering trust between Japan and Latin American countries. What follows is a story of a sesame seed business led by the Nikkei community in Paraguay, the most pro-Japanese country in Latin America.
Toshikazu Shirosawa at the office of Shirosawa Company, with sesame products on display.
The history of sesame seed production in Paraguay dates back to the early 1990s. At that time cotton production, which was the main income source of small-scale farmers, rapidly decreased because of a price decline and other factors, and the Paraguayan government’s support policy for small-scale farmers also stagnated.
In that situation Toshikazu Shirosawa, who currently serves as the chairman of “the Paraguayan Sesame Export Chamber (CPAPEXSE),” promoted sesame seeds cultivation as an alternative crop to cotton from a sense of mission to bring back the Paraguayan economy. Shirosawa immigrated to Paraguay from Hokkaido with his family in 1958. In 1971, he established Shirosawa Company, and began working in the business of exporting agricultural products.
“Since the late 1980s, our company has moved forward with the development of a delicious variety that matches the needs of the Japanese market through the test production of over 40 different sesame varieties. In the early 1990s, in San Pedro County (2), among other places, poverty in small scale farmers became a social concern. With the need for an alternative cash crop to cotton, our company distributed sesame seeds to small-scale farmers and provided technical guidance to them,” Shirosawa said. The company moved forward with the development of a new breed in advance of demand and also had the tailwind of social changes, so it could introduce into the Japanese market the Escoba variety, which today is highly rated there.
In the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, many Japanese descendants (Nikkei) in Paraguay donated money. When Shirosawa heard the news about the disastrous situation in the affected areas, he swiftly cancelled a party for the 40th anniversary of the company’s establishment, and sent US$100,000 earmarked for the celebration to the Japanese Red Cross Society through the Japanese Embassy.
Lider Ayala, professor, the School of Agrarian Sciences, Universidad Nacional de Asunción, right, frequently visits sesame seed production fields to provide technical assistance to agricultural extension workers and farmers.
Thanks to Shirosawa’s efforts, the Japanese market came to acknowledge the Escoba variety, and exports of sesame seeds from Paraguay to Japan have drastically increased since 2000. The number of sesame seeds farmers in Paraguay also has sharply increased from 5,000 family units in 1999 to 35,000 in 2005.
However, in the process of rapid production expansion, small-scale farmers relied too much on sesame seeds as a sole crop, causing prominent problems such as reduction in yield per unit area due to replant failure (3), and deterioration in quality through crossbreeding (4).
To respond to the situation, JICA implemented the project Strengthening Production of Sesame Seeds for Small Farmers from October 2009 to October 2012 to support small-scale sesame seed farmers by supporting the stable provision of superior seeds and improvement of their cultivation skills.
The project used the Japan-Mexico Partnership Programme (5), and was conducted as triangular cooperation (6) by Japan, Paraguay and Mexico. With the School of Agrarian Sciences of the Universidad Nacional de Asunción as a leading organization, the Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias of the United Mexican States (INIFAP), which has knowledge of sesame seeds production, conducted training to produce elite seeds and to improve cultivation skills.
“The project was launched while awareness was rising toward problems of sesame seed quality and reduced productivity. Thanks to the project, the research capability of our university has certainly improved. We have previously focused our efforts on the production of superior seeds, but recently other problems that were not expected at the start of the project such as deteriorating soil fertility due to continuous cropping have been found, so we will need to tackle new challenges in the future,” said Lider Ayala, professor at the School of Agrarian Sciences of the Universidad Nacional de Asunción, the project leader on the Paraguayan side.
In December 2012, Phase 2 of the project began. In Phase 2, to respond to such issues as the deterioration of soil fertility and how to strengthen the capacity to supply superior seeds, effort was put into the development of techniques for improving soil fertility and providing technical cooperation to seed-growing farmers. Also, to produce results based on market needs, Phase 2 is strengthening ties with private sector entities such as the Paraguayan Sesame Export Chamber (CAPEXSE), and it is creating opportunities for discussion of issues related to the production and distribution of sesame seeds in industry, academia and government.
Jorge Gattini, minister of Agiriculture and Livestock, left, hands over a letter of appreciation for a highly valued on-site evaluation to Yoshifumi Kaji of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan, who acted as a leader of the evaluation team.
In 2008, while sesame seed exports to Japan were steadily increasing even though issues related to production still remained, Paraguayan sesame seeds faced a new barrier, that is, the problem of residual agricultural chemicals. A case was found where chemical levels exceeding the Japanese standard value of residual agricultural chemicals were detected in Paraguayan sesame seeds. The problematic lot was not accepted for import into Japan.
In November 2013, with a growing sense of crisis in the Government of Paraguay toward residual agricultural chemicals that were found on a sporadic basis, a joint representative team from the Paraguayan public and private sectors led by Mario León, vice minister of Agriculture, visited Japan, with assistance from Shirosawa, who leads the Paraguayan Sesame Export Chamber (CAPEXSE). They discussed issues related to the residual agricultural chemicals with Japanese trade companies involved in sesame seeds imports, All Japan Edible Sesameseed Processors Association, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and other organizations.
During the visit, the team requested cooperation from JICA to evaluate a residual agricultural chemical inspection process. In response, JICA dispatched an evaluation team to Paraguay in September 2014 with support from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Despite a short period of evaluation, just two weeks, the evaluation team made a proposal including traceability of sesame seeds (7) and improved inspection capability for residual agricultural chemicals. The Government of Paraguay currently is reviewing countermeasures based on the proposal.
Naoyuki Takada, president of Katagi Foods Co., Ltd., gives a speech at a seminar. With interest high in the Japanese sesame seed market in Paraguay, some 150 people related to the sesame seed industry participated.
JICA also held a seminar entitled “Sesame Seeds International Seminar” in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, in March 2014. Staff from Japanese trading companies and people involved in sesame seed processing companies appeared as speakers to communicate the quality of sesame seeds required by Japanese consumers, including the standard value of residual agricultural chemicals, to Paraguayan people involved in sesame seed production such as farmers and agricultural extension workers.
“Paraguayan Escoba are white sesame seeds with an excellent flavor. We hope they continue to maintain their high quality and to be supplied stably,” said Naoyuki Takada, president of Katagi Foods in Osaka, processor and seller of sesame seeds, to encourage the Paraguayan people involved in sesame seed production.
For the major food importer Japan to continue steady procurement of safe food from overseas, both the public and private sectors need to work together to build a strong cooperative relationship with exporters. In the major agricultural country of Paraguay, it is reassuring that the Nikkei (Japanese descendants) community can play a facilitating role.
Paraguay's Nikkei community is a pioneer not just in sesame seeds, but also in soybeans, of which Paraguay has grown to boast the sixth largest production volume in the world. The Japanese community began vegetable cultivation, which led to the dissemination of agricultural techniques in Paraguay, as illustrated by the fact that the habit of eating vegetables has become common among Paraguayan people.
JICA sees the Nikkei community in Paraguay as an important partner for development in the country. By partnering with the public sector and through assistance for safe sesame seed production and export, it aims to improve the livelihood of the poor, and to assure the safety of food in Japan.
1: The average amount in the period 2010-2013 is 160,000 tons.
2: The departments of San Pedro and Concepción in the north, and Canindeyú in the east are the main production areas. With price increases in recent years, the cultivation area is expanding.
3: The production of a crop deteriorating because repeated cultivation of the same crop in succession increases the number of pests and causes a shortage of nutrients in the soil.
4: Cross breeding of different varieties
5: A project in which a developing country that formerly received assistance becomes the country providing assistance and provides cooperation from the same standpoint as Japan does. Including Mexico, Japan signed partnership programs and similar documents with 12 countries.
6: South-south cooperation is defined as a mutual cooperation of developing countries to implement assistance, and triangular cooperation refers to a form of cooperation where developed countries support south-south cooperation.
7: The evaluation team proposed to build a structure that can trace back the source of sesame contamination by agricultural chemical.