Rice has been at the center of Japan’s economy and culture for centuries. But changes are afoot. There is growing concern among Japanese farmers that the country’s rice-producing capabilities are diminishing in the face of international trade pacts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In fact, all local agriculture is in the spotlight as pressure mounts to increase local imports of overseas produce.

Setsuko Yasuda has been following this situation closely. She heads the Japan Organic Agriculture Association and the Vision 21 information center, which monitors the government’s policies on agriculture and food safety, among other things. In a recent interview she addressed these concerns and explained how rice consumption and production in Japan is changing.

What do you think about the current state of rice farming in Japan?

The government is not doing enough to protect national rice production. This is very troubling because rice has not only been our staple diet, it has been at the heart of Japanese life and culture. Collaboration and sharing, for example, are very important in Japanese society, and the origin of this can be found in the way rice is produced on a communal level. Also, up to the second half of the 19th century, economic wealth was calculated in rice. In other words, Japan’s society, culture and economy have been built around rice. If we throw away all the hard work our ancestors have done we are going to destroy both the environment and our food culture. That’s why I think the government’s current agricultural policy is a recipe for disaster.

How is the government’s attitude toward farmers changing?

Until 1995 the government used to buy all the rice produced in Japan before selling it at a relatively high price (agreed upon with the agricultural cooperatives) in order to sustain the farmers. At the same time, rice imports were banned.

Since the end of the 1980s, the United States pressured the (Japanese) government to lift the ban on importing foreign rice, and now the same thing is being debated in connection with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

What do you find the most troubling about the recent trade developments?

The way the United States is trying to force Japan to accept rice imports just because the U.S. has a surplus of rice — it has nothing to do with Japan’s food needs. In 1960, the average annual consumption (of rice) was 118 kilograms per person. Now it’s 61 kilograms — we consume about half the rice we used to eat 50 years ago.

Why isn’t rice as popular as it used to be?

After World War II, Japan imported many new ideas from America. One of them was that a bread-based diet was better for our health. At that time, it was advertised widely that eating rice made you stupid (laughs). So for many years the Japanese Government provided only bread for school lunches. In Japanese homes, many people now eat bread or pasta at least once a day and we eat a lot of meat. And most meat and wheat — together with other products such as soy beans and corn — are imported mainly from the U.S. As a result, Japan’s food self-sufficiency has gone down from 80 percent in 1960 to only 39 percent in 2006.

How does the TPP threaten Japanese agriculture and rice production in particular?

It would have a disastrous effect, as 90 percent of (Japan’s) national rice production would be wiped away by a total liberalization of the rice trade. Another thing that worries me are the big American biotechnology companies, such as Monsanto. To prevent the reconsolidation of farmland after the war, the government decided that only the people who did actual farming — as in small-scale farmers — could own land. That prevented joint-stock companies from gaining control of the land and was a good thing because big companies only think about the bottom line — when times are bad they can easily switch to more lucrative productions. I worry that, in the not-so-distant future, big businesses will gradually take control of Japanese agriculture, only pursuing their own interests at the expense of local people.

Considering the depopulation of rural areas, the old age of farmers and increasing production costs, would it be better to import cheap rice from other countries?

Maybe for a tiny country like Singapore it makes sense, but Japan still has more than 100 million people. Is it really safe to trust international free trade when our food self-sufficiency is at risk?

What effect do agrochemicals have on rice grown in Japan?

This is a sore point because Japan is the world’s No. 1 country in terms of chemicals used in agriculture. According to a 2004 OECD survey, Japanese farmers use almost 16 kg of chemicals per hectare while U.S. farmers only use 2 kg. However, if we analyze the final product — rice itself — we find more traces of chemicals in American rice than in Japanese rice. The reason is that the 1995 Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement (SPS) on food safety allows each member country to set its own safety standards and lets American farmers use more pesticides and insecticides after harvesting the rice. These chemicals stick to the grains and don’t go away.

Does that mean we shouldn’t worry too much about chemicals in Japanese rice?

Well, actually there’s a big problem right now with neonicotinoids, a new class of neuro-active insecticides that have been linked to the widespread disappearance of bees. In 2013, the European Union and a few non-EU countries restricted the use of certain neonicotinoids. In Japan, where these insecticides are widely used against shield bugs, the government is doing nothing. The agrochemical lobby is very influential here.

The number of Japanese farm households has declined in recent decades. How could the government create interest in agriculture among young people?

The main problem are all those complicated laws and regulations that often discourage people from even trying out this kind of business. Recently, for example, there’s a growing demand for organically farmed produce, but just to reconvert the land to the organic method takes about three years. Under these circumstances the government should support young enterprising farmers through long-term rental contracts and some sort of financial aid. These people need to know they are not being left alone in their battle to preserve our agricultural heritage.

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