The government’s white paper on agriculture for fiscal 2006 calls for greater domestic production as world population growth and increased bioethanol production put the squeeze on grain supplies for food. The United Nations estimates that the world’s population, which stood at 6.5 billion in 2006, will top 9 billion in 2050. Grain consumption in developing countries in 2050 is expected to double from the 1999-2001 average of 1.1 billion tons.

The U.S. Agriculture Department estimates that the percentage of U.S. corn used for bioethanol production will increase from 18 percent in 2006 to 31 percent within 10 years. The white paper expresses the fear that the trend may lead to a reduction in corn exports. It also says the prices of soybeans and wheat are on the rise due to droughts. It will become important for the government to push efficiency in the use of the nation’s agricultural land, including abandoned farmland.

Japan’s agricultural output in 2005 was worth 8.48 trillion yen, 2.6 percent down from the previous year. Output has remained below 10 trillion yen since 1997. The number of farming households in 2005 was 40 percent lower than 10 years earlier.

The white paper points to a worrying trend in agricultural production: Although Japan had 4.67 million hectares of arable land in 2006, 386,000 hectares had been abandoned in 2005 — or about 8 percent of total arable land and 5.7 times the area of Lake Biwa, Japan’s biggest lake.

The main reason for abandonment is the aging of people engaged in agriculture. The number of people who start farming careers has been on an increase in recent years, but of some 80,000 people who took up agriculture in 2005, about a half were at least 60 years old. Only about 12,000 were under 40.

Under the current tax system, those who have given up farming do not easily give up their ownership of the land. Therefore, it is imperative that the government work out tax and other measures aimed at consolidating abandoned arable land and helping enthusiastic, hardworking farmers acquire it at a reasonable price so that they can start efficient agricultural operations.

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