Japan remains vital canola customer

Exports keep growing | Japan is the second largest importer of Canadian canola

VANCOUVER — China receives all the attention in the canola market, but there is another crucial customer in the Asia Pacific region that can’t be ignored, say industry officials.

Japan has been a steady buyer of Canadian canola for decades, and its imports are up in recent years, despite demographic challenges.

“Japan has been one of the longest, most stable customers for Canadian canola through our history,” Canola Council of Canada president Patti Miller said during an interview at the association’s annual convention.

“They’re a really, really important country. We’ve got a great relationship. It’s a $1.4 billion market.”

Shipments to Japan averaged 1.75 million tonnes per year through the 1990s and jumped to 2.05 million tonnes per year in the 2000s.

Sales have kept growing since then, to 2.36 million tonnes in 2011 and 2.34 million tonnes last year.

Council chair Pat Van Osch said Japan sometimes gets lost in the shadow of the spotlight on China.

“We tend to talk more about China than our other buyers,” he said.

“China gets a lot of attention just because of the curve of their consumption.”

However, Japan is the second biggest importer of Canadian canola, despite a slowdown in the economy.

“If we lose Japan, that would be a significant step back for the industry,” said Van Osch.

Glen Hodgson, chief economist of the Conference Board of Canada, said Japan’s economy is forecast to grow by one percent per year over the next couple of years compared to seven percent a year for the rest of the Asia Pacific region.

Japan has the world’s highest level of public debt, even more than Greece. It has a declining population that is the oldest on Earth, with more than a quarter of its citizens older than 65. As well, 50 of its 52 nuclear power plants are closed following the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

“It’s kind of like a train wreck in slow motion,” said Hodgson.

However, Canada sold nearly 780,000 tonnes more canola to Japan last year than it did a decade ago.

“We’re kind of happy with the way that it’s going,” said Adrian Man, assistant vice-president of Richardson International Ltd.

He said canola is gaining at the expense of soybean market share.

“They prefer our oil, which is their traditional oil,” said Man.

A Japanese Oilseed Processors Association official said consumers aren’t as taken with canola’s health attributes as they are with its taste, frying properties and familiarity.

Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz led a trade mission to Japan in early March.

Miller participated in the trade mission, during which she met with seed importers and discussed new opportunities for trade that may arise in bilateral free trade discussions.

She said trade missions are important and was pleased that Ritz came along to demonstrate the government’s commitment to the industry.

“It really is about maintaining that ongoing relationship because relationship is important to the Japanese,” said Miller.

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