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After he spoke in the opening plenary at the GFSI Conference 2019, we interviewed Mr. Ikko Watanabe of Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to gain further insights on “Open Lab”, which he presented as a public-private partnership framework that challenges the weaknesses of the conservative government agency.

(GFSI Japan Local Group Communication WG, hereinafter as GFSI)

First of all, thank you very much for your presentation. Were you nervous to speak in front of such a large audience?

(Mr. Ikko Watanabe, hereafter as Mr. Watanabe)

I was quite nervous, as more than a decade has passed since my last presentation in English.

(GFSI) What is your candid impression of making a speech for more than 1,000 food safety stakeholders from over 60 countries?

(Mr. Watanabe) There are three points to make.

  • At first, I was wondering if the contents of Open Lab were really appropriate for the occasion, but later I felt that the audience received it rather positively.
  • Secondly, there is hardly any opportunity to introduce a Japanese policy in front of an audience representing so many countries, which makes this presentation a chance to begin a new epoch.
  • For my last point, I have made a speech in front of 300 people in the past, but this time, I realised that I needed some more training to tackle more than 1,000 people. Thanks to the support from GFSI, I was able to produce laughs at the end.

(GFSI) Those who read this post may not be familiar to the content of your presentation. Could you explain it again?

(Mr. Watanabe) I talked about the policy round-table meeting which started at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries last year and introduced our activities born from public-private collaboration.

(GFSI) Could you tell us why you created the scheme of Open Lab programme?

(Mr. Watanabe) I feel that the way in which organisations and policies are made within Japanese government agencies is rigid, which later becomes problematic. We therefore started working to bring open innovation into the policy-making process.

(GFSI) This background leads us to the first slide. Could you elaborate on the factors described in the slide?

(Mr. Watanabe) Japanese society tends to be conservative in making decisions. Therefore, we established Open Lab, hoping to cause some chemical changes to the way society exists today. We invite conscious, innovative people to get involved in new initiatives are invited for the policy-making process; that is, we aim to internalise what these individuals want to do as policy recommendations.

(GFSI) The statement, “the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is conservative,” was very bold from the beginning, but was it what you wanted to deliver the most?

(Mr. Watanabe) It is something I am aware of as a problem. I understand that government administration is basically conservative, but when talking about industrial policy, there are many things that cannot be done with a conservative attitude; so I expressed this point in a figurative sense.

(GFSI) Please tell us about the brief history of Open Lab and the process that took place after you set it up.

(Mr. Watanabe) In order to defeat the sense of problems I previously mentioned, I thought that we needed a mechanism such as Open Lab. Young people making policy proposals in Kasumigaseki has become a hot topic among other ministries and agencies, and it was the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ turn to handle such a spirit. It was a prime moment for those with ambitions to go forward to bring a change.

The applications to decide the themes for Open Lab are accepted in spring and fall. There are currently three remaining themes to decide, with a batting average of 50%. The 3D printer mentioned in my presentation is one of the accepted themes. We are happy that the upper management staff are also extending supports for us. The theme of the 3D printer mentioned in my presentation is one of them. I believe that it is important to connect with people outside the ministries. With a series of debates, we are discovering expected issues in the development of a legal system to address new technologies, and we are examining what we can do as a government.

(GFSI) As people may tend to resist new technologies that have not been developed before, especially when they are introduced for food, are there any activities to raise awareness of these technologies? For example, how do you make people want to eat the food made with the 3D printer?

(Mr. Watanabe) I always think about what would be considered as a good method to introduce new technologies. Certainly, we can be very conservative with food, as it belongs to our daily life. However, in order to create a sustainable food industry, it is necessary to utilise new technologies.

As for the means of raising awareness, we policy makers have to bear in mind how people change their behaviors when they eat new food. Humans are creatures who sometimes make irrational choices that are not based on economic principles and scientific rationality. Moreover, it is important to consider how to foster prospective policy makers in the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, remembering how human psychology can lead to unreasonable decisions. If there is no appropriate talent within the ministries, a system to effectively utilise the available knowledge of scholars, experts, or private companies from outside the ministries is required to facilitate good coordination. I am also an individual consumer, yet when it comes to business, I forget the fact that people make irrational choices. It is therefore necessary to consider how to reflect human psychology in policy.

(GFSI) Please tell us about the prospects of the 3D food printer, especially regarding the project’s schedule and goals.

(Mr. Watanabe) I think that it is better to divide the levels and plan the market as to how long each step will take and what is to be achieved. There are two types of 3D food printers. The first one uses a technology to combine cube-shaped materials, like the sushi teleportation device in my presentation. How to adjust the speed and cubes themselves is a technical issue, but the direction is clear, so we hope to make it happen unexpectedly early. I’m assuming that this kind of entertainment restaurant can be realised within two to three years.

The second type of 3D food printers adds multiple layers to build a food, but this still needs further considerations. Although the practical usages, such as printing sugar candy for wedding cakes, as well as applications that use a single material such as chocolate have already begun, it seems that it will take some time to make food composed of several materials.

However, I am certain that the 3D food printer can be easily personalised in the future. For example, it will be possible to make the most suitable food for each individual, such as one excluding a material that causes an allergic reaction. On the other hand, we must still consider the legislation to address toxic substances that may be produced by chemical reactions from 3D-printed foods made of multiple materials near future. Therefore, we recognise that there are yet many issues regarding how to balance mere technical aspects and food safety issues, and in what sort of timespan we will commercialise the products and develop the legislation.

(GFSI) Finally, while working on the activities of Open Lab, what do you hope to see as the future of Japanese food?

(Mr. Watanabe) In Japan, there is a special food culture rooted in historical backgrounds which cannot be imitated in other regions, and I believe that this is a unique strength of Japan from a global point of view. By taking advantage of it, we can monetise the local history, culture and stories so that the young generation may find Japan’s agriculture as a cool and exciting “new industry”. We would like to support this movement with the policy advice.

(GFSI) Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts amid the excitement of today’s conference.

This post was written and contributed by:

Yasuo Takeuchi

Business Design Manager, Emerging Technology and Business Development Office, Future Market Group
Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corporation
GFSI Japan Local Group Communication WG

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