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Japan’s food supply capacity is widely believed to be one of the world’s smallest. But is this really so?

Some experts warn that assuming this basic premise would be a disincentive for motivating farmers in the future.

The self-sufficiency rate on a calorie basis has been regarded as a major means of gauging Japan’s food supply capacity. The latest rate — 40 percent — is the lowest among developed countries, according to the government.

Many of the farm ministry’s recent measures under consideration are aimed at raising this rate to 50 percent by around fiscal 2017.

But experts knowledgeable about recent farming successes, doubt the effectiveness of formulating agricultural policy mainly in terms of achieving higher self-sufficiency rates.

“The major reason is that the oft-heard benchmark is not credible,” said Yoshihiro Asakawa, vice editor in chief of Farmers’ Business monthly magazine.

He also noted Japan is the only country using a calorie-based self-sufficiency rate for national policy choices.

Asakawa recently wrote a critical article about the farm ministry in Bungei Shunju, an influential monthly magazine, arguing that it seems to have adopted the calorie-based yardstick to stir public anxiety.

“The agriculture industry’s potential has been underestimated,” he said. “I suspect the ministry is trying to maintain its reason for existing under the banner of protecting poor farmers.”

The benchmark self-sufficiency rate is calculated by dividing domestically produced calories supplied per person daily by overall calories supplied per person per day.

But it needs to be remembered that the denominator is not equivalent to the amount actually consumed per person because people do not necessarily eat everything “supplied.” This means the amount supplied contains a mountain of food waste.

Thus the more food waste there is, the lower the self-sufficiency rate.

Even government officials do not deny that a major factor behind the downtrend is a dramatic change in the nation’s eating habits over the last half century.

As diets become more Westernized, the consumption of oils, fats and livestock products has increased sharply, while that of rice — a staple for which the nation is basically self-sufficient — has decreased.

Japan is relying heavily on imported oil seeds and feed grains, which are taken into account when the calorie-based self-sufficiency rate is calculated.

For example, pork and chicken’s original self-sufficiency rates are both more than 50 percent. But their official rates turn out to be below 10 percent as about 90 percent of feed grains used to produce them are imports.

In the case of vegetables, the vast majority are grown domestically. But they cannot contribute much to the food barometer as their calorie contents are extremely low.

As the government has repeatedly pointed to falling self-sufficiency rates, many tend to think the country’s farm output has been declining in parallel, but this is not the case.

Despite a drop in farmers, output volume has been almost flat since the 1960s, when the rate was above 70 percent.

Amid nagging worries about year-by-year changes in self-sufficiency rates, many excellent growers are absorbed in exploring new business opportunities.

More and more farmers, as well as consumers, have started to recognize their products are of much higher quality than imports.

Not only the industry, but also the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry is seeing that one area with great growth potential is the market outside Japan.

The government plans to more than triple farm and fisheries exports to ¥1 trillion in 2013 from the 2004 level.

Backed by the popularity of Japanese cuisine and the fast-rising spending power elsewhere in Asia, exports amounted to ¥433.7 billion in 2007, up from ¥295.4 billion in 2004.

“Japan’s farm products cannot compete in terms of price. But if combined with their high quality and added value, we believe they have greater overseas sales potential,” said Junichi Takeuchi, director of the ministry’s export promotion office.

Exports of fruits and seafood, including apples, strawberries, scallops, bonito and dried sea cucumbers, are rising rapidly, Takeuchi said.

But he added, “Achieving the 2013 target has become not that easy as a result of a slowdown in the global economy from last year and a rise in the yen’s value against other currencies.”

Shinichi Osawa, an agribusiness expert at Japan Research Institute, said, “Discussions regarding how to improve the country’s farming have overly focused on the production side.”

Simplifying produce distribution channels to make them direct to consumers is equally important, Osawa said.

On the domestic front, sales at farmers’ markets, where consumers can buy items shipped directly from producers, have been expanding recently and providing many helpful ideas for the future of agribusiness, Osawa said.

More than 80 percent will be take-home earnings if farmers sell products via the markets, compared with about 30 percent when going through ordinary distribution channels from cooperatives to wholesalers and then to retailers, according to Osawa.

Osawa said reform steps for farming should be considered more in view of “production, marketing and demand creation as a package,” as the country’s socioeconomic dimensions have changed dramatically.

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