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Japan’s food crisis goes beyond recent panic buying

by Mark Schreiber

The neon lights of Ginza flickered out, leaving Tokyo’s favorite playground in ominous darkness. Drivers fumed while waiting in long lines to purchase gasoline. Goods disappeared from supermarket shelves, sending housewives on forays into neighboring prefectures in search of everyday items such as toilet paper.

This describes Japan in the winter of 1973-74, after Middle East oil exporters, headed by the late Shah of Iran, jointly reduced output and raised prices in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, spurring the Energy Crisis.

Some of those who had experienced the “oil shokku” of the ’70s may have been among the ones who rushed out to snatch up provisions in the immediate aftermath of the March 11 megaquake. Many people harbored legitimate fears that the frequent aftershocks, some in the magnitude 7 class, might set off a chain reaction that would trigger a major quake close to Tokyo.

But the greatest blame for the panic buying was simply lack of preparation. In a 2007 survey conducted by the cabinet office, while 58.9 percent of the subjects said they kept portable radios, first-aid kits and flashlights in their homes, only 36 percent maintained emergency stocks of food and water. (That figure was still higher than the 25.6 percent of responses to the 2005 survey, and nearly double the 18.6 percent of responses given in 2000.)

Details of the shortages have been widely covered by the media. From March 16, Web newspaper J-Cast News began a series of articles tracking shortages of food items and other consumer goods. As of April 7 the series was up to seven installments. In order of appearance, the items included toilet paper, bottled water, instant noodles, batteries, high-class designer brand goods, natto (fermented soy beans), gasoline, yogurt and milk.

Shortages of certain food items are expected to persist for some time, for reasons ranging from slowness in replenishing the run on stores just after the March 11 quake to interruptions in logistics brought on by quake damage to factories and the transport infrastructure and power outages.

It can’t be overlooked that the four prefectures hit hardest by the quake, tsunami and nuclear reactor disaster, Aomori, Iwate, Fukushima and Ibaraki, also make substantial contributions to Japan’s food self-sufficiency.

The Japan Economic Journal of March 23, citing agriculture ministry data, noted that Iwate, for example, accounts for 3.9 percent of the nation’s beef and 14.4 percent of broiler chickens. Miyagi, in addition to growing 4.7 percent of Japan’s rice, is the source of 23 percent of oysters and 15.9 percent of sanma (saury fish). Fukushima farmers grow 20.6 percent of Japan’s peaches and 8.7 percent of cucumbers. And Ibaraki grows a full quarter of the nation’s bell peppers and Chinese cabbage.

While some of these items can be procured from abroad, it goes without saying that Japan’s efforts to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency have met with a daunting setback in the short term.

But even before the disaster, events were moving in the direction of a worldwide food crisis.

Sapio’s issue of March 30, which went on sale March 16, had already gone to press before the March 11 catastrophe, but its cover story — “The furtively approaching battle for foodstuffs that is squirming amid worldwide chaos” — reverberates.

Akio Shibata, who heads the Marubeni Research Institute, noted that wheat prices were facing a boost of 18 percent from this month, and warned that if the Japanese government continued to disregard the issue of foodstuffs, the day may come “when 100 grams of beef sells for ¥10,000.”

Price increases on international commodities markets, writes Shibata, are directly impacting the costs of receiving our daily bread. As one solution, he advises Japan to make efforts to boost its rice output and use the surplus grain as animal feed.

Sankei Shimbun editor Hideo Tamura voiced concerns that along with gold and petroleum, food commodities are being increasingly securitized in the form of hedge funds and even bought up by pension fund investors. It was the resultant increases in the costs of food staples, Tamura points out, that sparked the recent unrest in the Middle East and north Africa.

At this point in time, what can we do to avoid a looming food crisis? At the very least, Japan needs to work harder at reducing its scandalous food waste.

In a Shukan Economist article in November 2003, Takaaki Fukayama wrote that 1995 was the year Japan had eclipsed the United States as the world’s No. 1 squanderer of food on a per capita basis. That status, not coincidentally, was achieved the same year Japan began requiring food products to display “consume by” dates on all food products. While aimed at protecting consumers, the law exacerbated waste to the point that the amount of food being discarded annually by convenience stores and supermarkets — an estimated 6 million tons — was equivalent to roughly 80 percent of the food assistance being supplied to needy countries.

Not until February 2008 did government ministries get around to issuing new guidelines stating, “Just because the consume-by date has expired, it doesn’t mean the food has become unsafe. Through proper storage and preparation, we should reduce unnecessary waste.”

Muda ga nakereba, fusoku mo nai (Waste not, want not).