The fiscal 2005 white paper on agriculture, made public last month, covers the first year of the implementation of the nation’s basic plan for food, agriculture and agricultural communities that was adopted in March 2005. The plan is based on the 1999 basic law, which spells out four fundamental goals: securing a stable supply of food, bringing into full play the various functions of land used for agriculture, ensuring the sustainable growth of agriculture, and promoting the advancement of agricultural communities. To revitalize itself, the nation’s agricultural sector first must step up efforts to gain public trust and support by promoting a stable food supply, food safety, and the ability to meet diversified consumer demand.

For the first time, the government annual report takes up, prefecture by prefecture, self-sufficiency rates for food supply. Because this rate is influenced by people’s food preferences and changes in foreign exchange rates, and because agricultural products freely move from prefecture to prefecture, setting a specific self-sufficiency rate as a policy goal for each prefecture would not have much relevance. But tracking changes in each prefecture’s rate over a long period will increase awareness of the nation’s overall food self-sufficiency. It may also help farmers and agricultural policy planners adjust agricultural production to better suit reality.

Japan’s calorie-based self-sufficiency rate was 73 percent in fiscal 1965. By 1998, though, it had dropped to 40 percent and remained there for seven consecutive years through fiscal 2004. The self-sufficiency rate based on the “value of agricultural output” was 70 percent in both fiscal 2003 and 2004. The basic plan calls for raising the calorie-based self-sufficiency rate to 45 percent and the output-based self-sufficiency rate to 76 percent by the end of fiscal 2015.

Preoccupation with year-by-year changes in self-sufficiency rates may be unproductive. But looking at long-term changes could help farmers and policy planners see problems and advantages in each prefecture.

The white paper defines agricultural communities as the “common property” of the Japanese people, portraying them as the foundation for building a sustainable regional economy and society. In this connection, it calls attention to the importance of developing biomass to reduce dependency on fossil fuel.

At the same time, it expresses concern that population declines and stagnation in local economies could weaken the agricultural sector, thus jeopardizing food-supply stability, the preservation of the natural environment, and the continuation of traditions and culture.

Food-related industries, including agriculture, account for 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. In 2005, 3,338,000 people were employed in agriculture, a decrease of 14.2 percent from 2000. Pointing to the small number of people under 50 years old now engaged in agriculture, the white paper warns of possible labor shortages in the sector.

The report mentions a new subsidy policy for the agricultural sector that is expected to help usher in structural change. Under this policy, the government, instead of paying subsidies to every farming household, will limit subsidies to farming units above a certain size to equalize production conditions for wheat, soy beans, sugar beets and potatoes (farmed for starch) with those of foreign producers. Subsidies will also be provided to such farming units to cushion the effect of price changes in the above four staples plus rice.

As for food security, the annual document calls for deeper cooperation among producers, processors and distributors to improve the traceability of agricultural products’ places of origin. In fiscal 2004, 17.1 percent of food-product manufacturers surveyed used the traceability system for their goods. The corresponding figure for food wholesalers and food retailers was 15.3 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively.

On the consumer side, people aged 55 years old or older account for more than half of the nation’s food spending. The white paper predicts that postwar baby boomers and older generations will exert a strong influence on food consumption trends.

Agriculture is directly related to people’s daily life. The sector needs to respond flexibly to consumer demands under the principle of “producing and supplying good-quality products,” as the white paper says. Agricultural producers should concern themselves most with food safety, technological innovation and the production of value-added products.

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