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Recent incidents caused by tainted gyoza dumplings imported from China have reminded the public not only of the importance of food safety, but also of just how dependent the country is on food imports. While it is important to avoid hysteria about imports from China, it is time to rethink our reliance on imported food.

Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate declined to 39 percent for fiscal 2006 in terms of calories supplied — dipping below 40 percent for the first time since fiscal 1993. Japan’s self-sufficiency rate is the lowest among developed countries. For example, the rate for Germany is 84 percent.

While China is a large exporter of food to Japan, China itself has to import cereals. Global grain prices are rising due to such factors as widespread use of cereals as the source of biofuel, a decrease of farm land due to urbanization and industrialization and crop failure due to unseasonable weather. There is no guarantee that China will continue to be a stable food exporter for Japan.

The government is trying to increase the self-sufficiency rate to 45 percent by fiscal 2015. Although prospects for achieving this goal are slim, learning from abroad may help. Switzerland’s self-sufficiency rate once dipped below 40 percent but is now about 60 percent. In June 2007, the Swiss government liberalized exports and imports of cheese. But to boost agricultural production and maintain its landscape, it provides direct compensation to farmers, paid not only on the basis of land area, the number of livestock raised and their condition, but also in accordance with farmers’ efforts to maintain the environment, including a reduction or halt in the use of farm chemicals.

Simply copying the Swiss method may not work for Japan. Both have relatively little arable land but Japan has about 120 million more mouths to feed. Nevertheless Switzerland’s efforts should stimulate serious discussions among citizens, experts, lawmakers and bureaucrats on how to boost Japan’s agriculture production and reduce dependency on imports.

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