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FOOD SELF-SUFFICIENCY

Japan needs imports to keep itself fed

by Kazuaki Nagata

After a spate of food mislabeling frauds and the recent scare over pesticide-laced “gyoza” dumplings imported from China, consumers are perhaps more conscious than ever of the origin of what they eat. Many routinely check the origins of the foods they buy, especially imported products, which Japan relies heavily upon.

Following are some basic questions and answers about Japan’s food self-sufficiency:

What is Japan’s current status?

Three scales are used to gauge food self-sufficiency. The most commonly used one is calculated in calorie terms, while the other two use the value and weight of food production.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry said in August that Japan’s food self-sufficiency in 2006 was 39 percent on a calorie basis and 68 percent in terms of the value of agricultural output.

It was the first time in 13 years — and only the second since 1960, from which point comparable data are available — that the ratio fell below 40 percent on the calorie basis.

The ratio fell below 50 percent for the first time in 1989, and saw a sharp fall to 37 percent in 1993, when the country experienced a poor rice harvest. It stayed at 40 percent for eight years until 2005.

What imported food products does Japan rely heavily on?

Although Japan’s self-sufficiency rate for rice, eggs, whale meat and mandarin oranges exceeds 90 percent, the rate for essential ingredients for Japanese cuisine, including soy beans, is a mere 5 percent, and just 13 percent for daily necessities like cooking oil.

Half of the meat products consumed in Japan is imported.

What about other countries?

Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate on a calorie basis is the lowest among 12 developed countries cited in an international comparison released by the farm ministry in 2003. Australia topped the list, at 237 percent, followed by other food exporting countries, including Canada at 145 percent, the United States at 128 percent and France at 122 percent. Countries with low figures included Switzerland, at 49 percent, and South Korea, with a 2002 figure of 47 percent.

Why is Japan’s food self-sufficiency so low?

Japan had much higher food self-sufficiency in the past. The figure stood at 79 percent in 1960.

Experts cite many factors that have contributed to the decline. One common explanation is the radical changes in the eating habits of Japanese and in the food industry after World War II.

Shinichi Shogenji, dean of the University of Tokyo’s graduate school of agricultural and life sciences in the agriculture faculty, said Japan’s dietary habits have seen dramatic changes in the postwar decades. Meat consumption increased roughly nine-fold between 1955 and 2005 and consumption of oil rose about five-fold over those five decades, he pointed out.

Shogenji cited the shift in the last several decades toward more Western-style food. Until just after the war, Japanese mainly ate rice, some fish, vegetables and miso soup. But as their income increased during the rapid postwar economic growth, a great variety of Western food became available for average consumers, he said.

These changes, he said, substantially lowered the nation’s food self-sufficiency because it reduced rice consumption.

“Rice is one of the few products for which we can ensure self-sufficiency,” he said. Farm ministry data show the annual consumption of rice per capita, which stood at 126.2 kg in 1960, declined to 67.4 kg in 2006.

Instead of rice, Japanese started eating more meat — for which the nation relied more and more on imports over the years — and consumed more oil, especially vegetable oil, whose ingredients are largely imported.

Shogenji also pointed to the increase in imports of livestock feed. Under the calorie-based food self-sufficiency calculation, domestically raised cows and pigs are not counted as domestic in origin if they eat imported feed.

In addition, the growth of services like fast food restaurants and processed foods along with changes in eating habits where many consumers forgo cooking also contributed to the decline in self-sufficiency.

“When we look in the meat section at a grocery store, domestic meat accounts for a large portion,” he said. “But it’s just for consumption as fresh produce.”

Fast food chains and processed foods rely heavily on cheaper imported ingredients, he noted.

According to a survey by the Japan Frozen Food Association of 31 member companies, 200,634 tons out of 315,436 tons of precooked frozen imported food in 2006 came from China. Farm ministry data show that of the roughly 778,000 tons of frozen vegetables imported that year, about 326,000 tons came from China and 285,000 tons from the U.S.

Does Japan plan to increase its food self-sufficiency? If so, how?

In March 2000, the agricultural ministry set a goal of raising food self-sufficiency to 45 percent by 2010, but it has since pushed back the target to 2015.

The ministry last year promoted greater consumption of rice and raw milk products and tried to restore trust in domestic products. The ministry pushed for rice in school lunches and support for farmers who supply their products to the processed food industry.

Shogenji, who had earlier served as chairman of the ministry’s Conference for Improving Food Self-Sufficiency, said today’s eating habits of Japanese are not exactly healthy because too much oil is consumed.

In terms of nutrition, the PFC (protein, fat and carbohydrate) balance of what an average Japanese was eating around 1980 was said to be best, Shogenji said. He suggested that changes in eating habits, including less reliance on imported food, would be good for both self-sufficiency and health.

Shogenji also said the fall in Japan’s food self-sufficiency roughly coincided with the decline of the farm industry.

“I think it is necessary to reinvigorate agriculture, which will result in increasing self-sufficiency,” Shogenji said.

Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio of 39 percent means the nation can provide about 2,000 Kcal of food a day for every citizen. This, he said, is barely above the danger level.

The dip below 40 percent is “a wakeup call” for Japan, given that the global food supply-demand situation appears to be at a turning point, with some developing countries already starting to limit food exports to ensure domestic demand is met as well as meeting increasing demands for ethanol as biofuel, Shogenji said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk