JIN-498 -- Self-sufficiency finds its way onto the agenda

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J@pan Inc Newsletter
The 'JIN' J@pan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
in Japan.
Issue No. 498 Wednesday January 28, 2009, Tokyo

On Tuesday the government made an important step towards improving the
self-sustainability of the nation when Agriculture, Forestry and
Fisheries Minister Shigeru Ishiba requested the drafting of a new farm
policy. The policy may see an end to the practice of curtailing the
nation's rice production, a long-standing practice that was put in
place to ensure prices remained high.

From a purely selfish point-of-view I'm sure all of us would be happy
to see the price of rice drop. While I myself am not too fussy (I tend
to gravitate towards the more generic packaging), for those who are
more discerning, rice always seems like a ridiculously over-priced

At the heart of the policy, of course are votes - the main concern.
The government, ever wary of the power of the rural vote, has
consistently kept the prices high and meanwhile subsidized the
farmers. Also the less land used for farming, the more land used for
other businesses such as manufacturing. Some farmers, however, have
remained critical of the policy and according to reports, the minority
who have defied the policy, have still managed to get their rice to
markets in urban areas.

But as self-sustainability becomes an increasingly dangerous concern,
it seems the government has finally decided it is time to change the
policy. Japan, the tiny island nation with the giant-sized output
(cars, technology etc) needs to feed the fire. Minerals from places
such as Australia and Brazil keep the manufacturers fed while rice
from countries like Thailand plug the gap in the nation's dietary

Forty years ago Japan's self-sufficiency rate was 70 percent. At
present it is only 40 percent. By 2017, the government plans to have
increased the rate to 50 percent. The new farm policy, which, after a
year of discussions, will be handed to the government, will form a big
part of this new drive for reduced reliance on imports.

Darrell Nelson from the Anaheim University Kisho Kurokawa Green
Institute, covered the issue in the Winter issue of J@pan Inc
magazine. Nelson quoted research by Dr Kouyu Furasawa, a professor of
ecological economics at Kokugakuin University. He said that 700 to
800 million tons of goods, food included, are imported into Japan
annually. Japan accepts about 20 percent of the total amount of goods
that are shipped by sea globally each year. This is considerable when
it is taken into account that the nation only takes up about 0.2
percent of the world's land and around 2 percent of the world's

Much has been made by companies on their progress in becoming
eco-friendly, but there is a long, long way to go - if the nation's
food self-suffiency seems bad, think about its energy
self-sufficiency. In the 1960s it was about 56 percent, the last
statistics, compiled in 2000, put it at about 4 percent.

The government's move on Tuesday needs to be recognized as a step in
the right direction. An increase in food self-sufficiency by 10
percent in 10 years seems ambitious, but it is necessary. It will be
another year until we see what concrete initiatives the advisory board
hands down. And the reforms won't be in place until 2010. I'll be
sticking to the imported Thai rice until then, I think.

Michael Condon

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