Sowing the seeds for lower food security?

A bill about to be approved by the Diet would abolish the law on seeds of mainstay crops. The Abe administration intends to expand private-sector companies’ entry into the seed business by terminating the law, which mandates the development and production of seeds for rice, wheat, soybeans, and barley and oats by prefecture-run agricultural experiment stations.

Even though abolition of the law could potentially have a major impact on Japan’s agriculture in ways that affect food security, the Lower House quickly passed the bill last month without much deliberation, and it was endorsed by an Upper House committee on Thursday. Lawmakers should still weigh the possibility that a repeal of the law could pave the way for seeds developed and sold by big multinational firms to make significant inroads into the farming of the nation’s mainstay crops.

The law was introduced in 1952 with the aim of promoting the production and spread of high-quality seeds for mainstay crops. Since the law represents the legal basis for the agricultural experiment stations’ budgetary requests to prefectural governments for expenses on seed development and production, its abolition could, in the worst-case scenario, result in sharp cuts to these allocations.

Under the law, prefectural governments designate seeds that should be recommended to local farmers and systematically increase the output of such seeds at farms that meet relevant standards. The budgetary measures, which cover production costs, enable them to sell the seeds to farmers at relatively low prices. Thanks to the law, all rice seeds the nation’s farmers now use are grown domestically.

The law does not cover vegetable and flower seeds. But private-sector companies engaged in the seed business have long complained that prefecture-run publicly funded agriculture experiment stations developing and producing seeds for mainstay crops hinder their attempts to expand into that sector. Business lobbies such as the Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai) have called the practice a suppression of private-sector business by public institutions. In response to such calls and on the basis of a recommendation by the government’s regulatory reform council, the Abe administration submitted the bill to abolish the law.

Once the law is abolished, farmers may benefit from the private-sector’s agricultural technologies for the development of higher-quality seeds for mainstay crops. But one likely problem will be increases in the prices of seeds now covered by the law and sold to farmers. If the law’s abolition results in cuts in prefectural government budgets for the on development and production of seeds, the agricultural experiment stations may be forced to charge more for the seeds sold to farmers.

Another problem will occur if farmers come to rely on seeds supplied by private-sector firms. Although many seeds developed by private-sector firms possess excellent attributes, they are mostly F1 (filial 1) hybrids. Since the excellent characteristics of F1 hybrids are not passed on to subsequent generations, it is meaningless for farmers to collect seeds from the plants grown with them, and they will have no choice but to buy the same types of seeds from the companies each year.

Concern has been voiced about the possibility that expanding the private-sector roles in the seed business may result in overseas firms, particularly the giant multinationals in the chemical and bio-business sectors, having a major presence in the supply of seeds for mainstay crops. Questions have also been raised about the potential risk of generic resources and technologies accumulated by the agricultural experiment stations in their seed development being eventually controlled by a handful of big agri- and bio-businesses.

In most countries, public institutions are involved in the collection, storage, production and supply of seeds in some manner because seeds are strategically important for national food security. The abolition of the mainstay crops seed law could potentially change this structure. However, the government has only explained to the Diet that the law needs to be abolished in view of recent changes in the situation surrounding Japan’s farming.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Committee of the Lower House held only one session, lasting about five hours, to deliberate and pass the bill. It does not appear that the opinions of farmers, who will be directly affected by the move, have adequately been represented in the discussions.

Efforts should still need to be made to ensure that the national and local governments will remain involved in the development, production and supply of seeds for critically important agricultural products.