Ministry preaches food self-sufficiency

by Reiji Yoshida

The recent scare over pesticide-tainted “gyoza” dumplings made in China and the rapid price surges of flour and other food products across the world have aroused serious anxiety among millions of Japanese consumers over imported everyday foods.

But one government body has been encouraged by the alarming news concerning imported food — the agriculture ministry, which champions weak Japanese farmers who are struggling in the face of global price competition.

Now is probably the best chance in recent years to promote the ministry’s policy of protecting Japanese farmers, as consumers have finally started turning to domestically grown food products.

The ministry plans to create a new Food Security Department starting April 1, with a budget allocation totaling ¥1.7 billion solely to campaign to up public awareness of the country’s poor food-sufficiency rate.

The ministry has already spent ¥65.5 million on newspaper and magazine advertising in the last two weeks of February alone.

Among the publications are fashion and lifestyle magazines particularly popular with the young, including Hanako, an an, Brutus, Croissant and Tarzan.

“People’s awareness over world food security has increased more than ever. Of course that’s one of the reasons (to launch the new food security department),” said Takayuki Kimura, an official in charge of food security issues at the ministry.

Kimura and other ministry officials said the creation of the department was decided long before the food poisonings linked to the tainted gyoza in Hyogo and Chiba were reported at the end of January.

Prices of a variety of food products started rising worldwide around two years ago. This prompted the ministry to launch the new department, Kimura said.

The gyoza scandal provided further ammunition for the ministry to spread its message of food-sufficiency, as Japanese consumers apparently believe domestically grown foods are safer than those from China.

According to the ministry, in the wake of the gyoza scare, vegetable imports from China sank 32.9 percent in terms of weight in February compared with the same period the previous year.

Japan’s food-sufficiency ratio on a calorie basis has kept falling over the past five decades, reaching 39 percent in 2006, the lowest among major industrialized countries.

In March 2000, the ministry set a goal of raising food sufficiency to 45 percent by 2010, but it was forced to push this target back to 2015, as Japanese are eating less and less rice — one of the few areas Japan can ensure self-sufficiency in — and are importing more and more food because it is cheaper or better-tasting.