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Don’t Let Japanese Agriculture Become a Boiled Frog [2012/01/14]

Don’t Let Japanese Agriculture Become a Boiled Frog

Starting off a blog entry with a reference to a boiled frog and Japanese agriculture is boorish and discourteous, especially to those working in the agricultural sector. Nonetheless, this is exactly what I think of when I hear of the growing concerns about the future of that sector if Japan decides to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The “boiled frog” expression is frequently used in reference to a business that fails to perceive a threat to its survival because the change has been so gradual. Like a frog in a pot of water that is slowly heated to boiling point, it takes no measures to save itself. After decades of being coddled by protectionist measures, Japanese agriculture, especially rice farming, has lost its vitality and is unaware of the danger it now is in.

An Age of Food Shortages
Global food production can no longer keep pace with rapid population growth , and food−like oil and mineral resources−is becoming a limited resource countries must scramble for. No country facing a shortage of food at home is going to sell to other countries. In Japan farmers get 341 yen for a kilogram of rice and are protected by a 778% tariff on imports. It’s unrealistic to expect that a country will sell us rice if and when we need it. We’ve got to get ourselves out of that pot of warm water and revitalize the farm sector. Food security is an urgent issue and one that requires a complete turnaround through agricultural policy reforms.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, Japan’s self-sufficiency rate is 39% on a calorie basis. The figure represents a 50% drop in 50 years. The situation is even graver when it comes to grains. Japan depends on imports for most of its wheat, soybeans, and corn, pushing down its self-sufficiency ratio to just 27% when it comes to grains. Among countries with 100 million people or more, it is way down on the bottom of the list.

The large-scale use of chemical fertilizers and introduction of hybrids enabled global grain production to outpace population growth through the mid 1980s. But since then, the global population has grown explosively and demand has outstripped supply. The shortage has been aggravated by other factors, including the growth in meat consumption in newly industrialized countries, the switch to biofuels, and abnormal climate conditions.

It takes about 11 kilograms of corn to produce one kilogram of beef, seven kilograms to produce a kilogram of pork, and four to produce a kilogram of chicken. Rising energy demand has also led the United States and Brazil to step up production of bioethanol made from corn. Their soybean fields are being converted into corn fields, a trend that bodes ill for Japan, which relies for 70% of its soybean imports from those two countries.

World grain prices have soared over the past decade. Wheat prices are up 500%, corn is up 300%, and soybeans are up 250%. In 2004, China, with a population of 1.3 billion, became a net agricultural importer. The UN World Food Programme reports that 900 million people around the world are threatened with starvation.

The Risk of Over Dependence on Imports
Given recent developments, it is clear that Japan’s heavy reliance on imports is risky. About 2.6 million people are engaged in farming in Japan, but 61% of them are 65 or older, and the ranks of retired farmers are swelling. In contrast, there were only 13,000 people aged 39 or younger who joined this declining sector in fiscal 2009. In the years to come, abandoned farmland will become an increasingly common sight.

Japan’s post WWII agricultural policies, which are rooted in the Staple Food Control Law of 1942, have been geared toward propping up rice prices and guaranteeing rice farmers a steady income. Rice has been given disproportionate weight over other crops, with the national agricultural cooperatives safeguarding farmers’ interests through rice-price negotiations. The industry as a whole has lost its ability to perceive the crisis, and conspicuously little progress has been made toward modernization.

In fiscal 2009 (April 2009 to March 2010), total farm output in Japan came to 8.2 trillion yen. Rice accounted for 21.9% (1.8 trillion yen) of the total, even less than vegetables, at 25.5% (2.1 trillion yen), even though rice farmers outnumber vegetable farmers five to one. In addition, tariffs on vegetable imports are virtually nonexistent, ranging from zero to three percent, yet Japanese growers still supply about 80% of the domestic market. The comparison is not flattering.

Saito Kazushi, a pig and rice farmer from Yamagata Prefecture in the northeastern part of Japan, is the founder of a local cooperative with 120 farming households and served as the only farmer on the panel of a national congress calling for the early participation in the TPP Talks. Saito warns, “Farmers are about to become an extinct breed…. In a decade, we will no longer have the people or technology to grow crops, and it will be too late to produce our own food even if we realize we must do that.”

Some people claim that eliminating tariffs will open the gates to a flood of imported rice and lead to the demise of Japanese rice, since it wouldn’t be able to survive the price competition. My own opinion is that Japanese rice will, like domestic vegetables and fruit, do fine on the international market because of the high standards of quality and safety. Japanese cuisine is popular internationally today, which is another reason it will likely fare well.

Courage and Decision-Making Power
I sometimes have the occasion to speak with young volunteers in the satoyama movement to conserve local forests and other land traditionally used and maintained by the community and in locales affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. It’s clear many people want to help revive rural areas by getting jobs in agriculture or fishing, but there’s no system or way of helping them get started. Nor is there a way to assist them in finding new uses and markets for domestic rice.

The slump in domestic rice consumption has caused the price of a 60-kilogram bag to fall from 15,000 yen a decade ago, when it was four or five times more expensive than imported grains, to less than twice the price of imports today. Exporting rice may one day be a possibility. It makes more sense to remove the protective cocoon of tariffs and make agriculture a strong, viable industry. Participation in TPP is something we should not fear.

The Council for the Realization of the Revival of the Food, Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Industries, chaired by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, recently released a five-year action plan calling for the establishment of larger-scale farms that are 20 to 30 hectares in flatlands and 10 to 20 hectares in mountainous areas. It also called for steps to encourage more young people to take jobs in farming, such as subsidies for young farmers. Grants like these are available in a number of countries, such as France, which has a food self-sufficiency rate of 130%. Doing so would be a more meaningful and positive way of supporting the industry than providing subsidies to part-time farmers, who comprise 70% of the total.

People say that policy continuity is important, but in the case of agricultural policies in Japan today, we need to have the strength and resolve to disengage ourselves from the past. We must not let the country’s agricultural sector become a boiled frog.

(The original Japanese article was published in the December 27, 2011 issue of Sankei Shimbun.)
Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 12:35 | URL | comment(0)