Japan’s calorie-based food self-sufficiency rate was 39 percent in fiscal 2013 — the same level for the fourth consecutive year. The farm ministry’s goal is to raise the rate to 50 percent by fiscal 2020. But it should be realistic and realize that this is unattainable. While a high food self-sufficiency rate may be psychologically reassuring, being obsessed with raising the rate carries a danger of deforming the nation’s overall agricultural policy.

In fiscal 2013, a last-minute buying spree ahead of the April 1 consumption tax hike boosted demand for rice, increasing self-sufficiency figures for the crop. But bad weather lowered the production of wheat and soybeans, preventing the overall self-supply rate from going up.

Japan maintained a food self-sufficiency rate of more than 70 percent until fiscal 1965. The rate hit a record low of 37 percent in fiscal 1993 due to a poor rice harvest. After rising to 46 percent in the following fiscal year, the rate again fell. Since fiscal 1997, the rate has been hovering around 40 percent — the lowest level among developed countries — and there is no prospect that it will substantially improve.

Behind the low food self-sufficiency rate is a major change in people’s dietary habits in the postwar period. As the nation became more affluent, consumption of meat, dairy products and cooking oil rose, leading to an increase in feed-crop imports. Since meat production relying on imported feed isn’t counted as domestic output, the nation’s calorie-based self-sufficiency in food decreased. Japanese agriculture has apparently failed to adapt itself to this change.

Japan hopes to maintain import tariff rates on five categories of agricultural products — rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and sugar and sugar crops — at current levels even if it joins the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade scheme.

In fiscal 2013, the self-sufficiency rate for these products leveled off from the previous fiscal year. But if the government is forced to lower the tariff rates in the TPP talks and the pact takes effect, Japan’s overall food self-sufficiency will decrease, making the farm ministry’s attempt to raise the rate meaningless. In fact, the ministry’s long-term policy of providing hefty subsidies to farmers in an attempt to raise the food self-sufficiency rate has produced no meaningful result.

The government in fiscal 2010 introduced a system of income compensation for individual farmers to improve the food self-sufficiency rate. But it dropped from 40 percent in fiscal 2009 to 39 percent in fiscal 2013, indicating that the policy has distorted Japan’s overall agricultural policy.

A decision by the United States in 1973 to temporarily ban the export of soybeans caused a major commotion in Japan. In the wake of this experience, Japan started to diversify its sources of soybean imports to include countries such as Brazil and Canada. Instead of being obsessed with improving Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate, the government should make strenuous efforts to diversify its import sources as a hedge against possible supply problems.

At the same time, the government should pursue policies to improve agricultural productivity and marketability of Japanese farm products, without necessarily linking them to improvement of the food self-sufficiency rate.

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