Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has included the promotion of agriculture in the “third arrow” of his economic growth strategy and envisaged the creation of agricultural villages that will produce world-class products for export.
But Japan’s agriculture is now at a critical point. According to the fiscal 2012 white book on agriculture, people 65 years old or older accounted for 60 percent of those whose main job was farming and the average age of farmers is nearly 66. They’re having difficulty finding successors, and the amount of agricultural land being abandoned is on the rise. In 2010, the total area of abandoned agricultural fields reached 396,000 hectares — equivalent to the area of Saitama Prefecture. Agricultural land that has been abandoned has been damaged by the foraging of animals such as monkeys, deer and wild boar. Cost increases caused by rising prices for fuel and feed are also taking a toll on Japan’s agriculture.
A big problem with Mr. Abe’s policy is that he fails to pay serious attention to the possibility that Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade plan may bankrupt small-scale agricultural producers. This would have a devastating effect on rural communities as well as the nation’s natural environment.
Although it is important to try to increase the scale and efficiency of agricultural production, the government should realize that many agricultural communities cannot be made more efficient due to the nature of the terrain and should work out other measures to strengthen such communities.
The government is thinking of setting up an organization to mediate the selling and buying of farmland. It should help this organization become an effective tool to prevent the abandonment of farmland and to accelerate the process of combining of smaller agricultural plots to form large fields.
The government needs to pay attention to the fact that although quite a few young people try their hand at farming annually — for example, in 2011 some 14,000 people below the age of 40 became farmers — about 30 percent of new, young farmers quit within five years because they fail to make a profit or find the work too hard.
In fiscal 2012, the government started a system to pay ¥1.5 million a year to younger people who became farmers. The payments end if the farmer’s annual income reaches ¥2.5 million. The government should raise this rather low ceiling. In addition, it should set up a system to help young farmers conclude long-term contracts with food companies, supermarkets and restaurants to sell their products. Agricultural cooperatives and agricultural production corporations can also play a bigger role in providing know-how to new farmers.
Mr. Abe has set a goal of increasing the value of Japan’s agricultural exports from the current ¥450 billion a year to ¥1 trillion a year by 2020. But unless the government helps farmers understand the needs of overseas markets and work out marketing strategies, the plan will not bear fruit.