Dear Prime Minister Taro Aso,
I’m writing to suggest that you adopt an agricultural policy that would lessen Japan’s dependence on imported food and increase the proportion of homegrown foodstuffs consumed within the country.
Japan’s present food self-sufficiency rate is only 39 percent on a calorie basis, compared with 79 percent in 1960. While it’s true that Japan’s topography and high population density prevent it from becoming a major agricultural exporter, it’s also true that much more of Japan’s food could be grown here. Importing 61 percent of its food, Japan has one of the lowest self-sufficiency rates in the developed world.
Even its crowded, industrialized neighbors do better. South Korea, with 48 million people and only a fraction the size of Japan, still manages a food self-sufficiency rate of 47 percent.
In 1957, the Ministry of Agriculture issued a report listing the main problems in Japan’s farming sector. At the top of the list were low farming incomes, low food self-sufficiency rates and low international competitiveness. 52 years later, all three problems still exist — and are worsening.
The crux of the issue is that Japan’s farm productivity is low compared to other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries. (There is one exception to this rule: the per-hectare yield from Hokkaido’s potato farms is the highest in the world).
Japan produces an annual rice surplus, but this surplus is mainly due to a policy of protectionism. The Japanese government spends roughly $45 billion a year subsidizing the agricultural industry, almost the same as the nation’s agricultural gross domestic product. In other words, without the measures that protect agriculture, its contribution to Japan’s GDP would be zero.
Why is potato production so much more efficient than rice production? Because potatoes are grown by large, efficient agricultural producers, whereas most of the farmland used to grow rice consists of scattered, low-profit, micro-size plots tended by part-time farmers. In 2005, the Asia Times described them as “notoriously inefficient.”
And then there’s politics. Potato farmers have no power and therefore few subsidies. But Japan’s rice lobby maintains a powerful hold on policymaking due to the disproportionate strength of rural voters.
Japan is the world’s second-largest buyer of soybeans, and 95 percent of them are imported. Why can’t they be grown here? Half of Japan’s meat is also imported, yet it’s no more expensive than the domestically produced meat. And why is there not a renewed effort by the government to increase the area available for large-scale food production?
Indeed, the issue of increasing food production has sparked some innovative ideas. One is called “green roofs,” and it involves planting crops and plants on the barren roofs of both residential and commercial buildings. The country most interested in the concept is Singapore, where up to 1,000 hectares of urban rooftops might soon be devoted to fresh vegetable production. Ninety-five percent of Singapore’s food is imported, so the potential is huge: If only half of those 1,000 hectares of rooftops were used to grow vegetables, it would result in the production of about 100,000 tons a year of food that presently has to be imported. This would represent a quarter of Singapore’s annual vegetable consumption.
Also on the drawing board are “vertical farms,” which would produce crops, poultry and fish year-round in a controlled environment free of pollutants, parasites and dangerous microbes, and would also recycle some of the billions of liters of rainfall that currently pours down drains.
Japan needs to examine these options. A 2008 report on agricultural policy from the Tokyo Foundation concluded: “Besides the natural conditions that make Japan inherently short of arable land, much of the blame for this situation lies with policy failures.” There needs to be a serious effort to improve food self-sufficiency, and it needs to begin soon.
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