Climate change is threatening Japan’s sushi culture. Here’s how

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Helen Nugent, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Japan’s sushi culture is under threat from climate change.
  • Rising water temperatures are affecting the quality of fish, while extreme weather events are harming wasabi crops.
  • In the US alone, the market size of the sushi restaurant sector reached $22.25 billion in 2019.

Sushi is synonymous with Japan. But this hugely popular food is under threat.

For the uninitiated, sushi is bite-sized and rice-based, often involves raw fish and is usually accompanied by sliced ginger and wasabi. Whether you’re a fan of nigiri, gunkan or temaki and buy it from the supermarket or enjoy it in a high-end restaurant, the global sushi market is big business. But climate change is starting to have an impact on the industry.

The popularity of sushi

The global sushi restaurants market is predicted to grow by $2.49 billion by 2025, according to Research and Markets. While in the US alone, the market size of the sushi restaurant sector reached $22.25 billion in 2019, says Statista.

In a 2019 survey, Statista also found that just over two-fifths of Japanese people consume sushi from a shop at least once a month.

How climate change could threaten Japan’s sushi culture

However, just because there’s a demand for sushi doesn’t mean that it can be met. In Japan, fishermen and women are worried about stock. In an article published by Reuters, people who have been fishing for years spoke of their concern over an unprecedented number of unusually fatty katsuo.

Otherwise known as skipjack tuna, the fish is a crucial part of Japanese cooking, especially when it comes to sushi. Fishermen believe that the fatty katsuo must be connected to rising water temperatures and therefore climate change. Data from local laboratories shows that the average temperature in a bay in southwest Japan – usually regarded as a profitable fishing area – had, over 40 years to 2015, risen by 2C.

This warmer water presages future problems, not least fewer katsuo. There’s also the existing issue of overfishing which has decimated fish numbers, and a reluctance of younger generations to follow their parents and grandparents into the family fishing business.

What about the wasabi?

And then there are the fears over the future of wasabi amid climate change. In 2019, a particularly fierce typhoon season full of landslides and heavy rains had a catastrophic effect on Japanese wasabi farms.

As wasabi is usually grown along streams in narrow valleys, it is vulnerable to harsh weather. And, as global warming contributes to the frequency and intensity of storms, rising temperatures also risk harming wasabi production. The plants thrive in water which maintains a year-round temperature of between 10-15C. So a combination of all these climate change factors has led to an instability in the supply of wasabi.

Is there a solution?

As with so many things related to climate change, adaptability is key.

“If this unstable supply of wasabi persists, due to many factors including global warming, we will face a situation where we need to come up with other ways to overcome the problem so we don’t end up not serving raw wasabi at all,” Norihito Onishi, head sales manager at a chain of Tokyo noodle restaurants, told Reuters.

Discover

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can’t have a healthy future without a healthy ocean – but it’s more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

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