Nation's food self-sufficiency rate

The government’s new target of raising Japan’s self-sufficiency in food to 45 percent in 10 years — compared with the previous target of 50 percent — may be more plausible because it’s closer to reality. Still, the question remains whether it is appropriate to retain food self-sufficiency as a major yardstick in the nation’s agriculture policy.

The new target is featured in the government’s basic agriculture plan, which has been updated every five years since 2000 to set the direction of farming policy. The earlier plan adopted in 2010 by the Democratic Party of Japan administration then in power called for increasing Japan’s calorie-based rate of food self-sufficiency to 50 percent by fiscal 2020, but the actual figure remained roughly flat at 39 percent for the four years up to fiscal 2013.

Japan’s calorie-based self-sufficiency rate, which stood at 73 percent in 1965, has steadily declined for decades as people’s lifestyles and dietary habits changed. After dipping below 50 percent in 1989 and experiencing subsequent ups and downs, the rate has largely hovered around 40 percent since 1997. The 50 percent goal was obviously unrealistic and the reduction to 45 percent may only be natural.

Japan is in fact one of the few countries worldwide that use calorie-based food self-sufficiency as a yardstick in gauging how much domestic output covers the nation’s food consumption. While it is often highlighted that Japan trails far behind other industrialized economies in food self-sufficiency, the figure climbs to 65 percent in fiscal 2013 if calculated in terms of the output value of the nation’s agricultural production — putting Japan’s self-sufficiency on a level comparable with those of such countries as Germany and Switzerland.

In calorie-based calculations, livestock raised in Japan would not be counted as domestic supply if their feed is imported. Food self-sufficiency figures have declined in correspondence with the drop in the consumption of rice, whose domestic output nearly covers the nation’s needs, and the increase in demand for meat, whose production depends heavily on feed imports. Vegetable farming remains competitive against imports, but it counts for less in calorie-based self-sufficiency than it does in output value. While reducing the target for calorie-based self-sufficiency, the updated basic agriculture plan sets a target for increasing the self-sufficiency rate in output value terms from 70 percent to 73 percent. The move apparently reflects the government’s attempt to encourage farmers to switch to higher value-added products that may not count as much in the calorie-based calculations but would contribute to increasing farmers’ income.

Concern is often raised that low food self-sufficiency puts Japan at particular risk in the event that international food supplies are disrupted due to crises, leading to the argument for increasing the self-sufficiency as a major priority in the nation’s agriculture policy. However, an obsession with food sufficiency figures may be off the mark, because, for example, food shortages can take place in a country that normally supplies most of the food consumed by its people.

The more important question for food security should be whether a country has sufficiently diversified its sources of securing food for its people. Maintaining an open trade system and diverse sources of food imports should be the priority for Japan, instead of setting excessively high targets for self-sufficiency in food — especially if it entails the cost of subsidizing the farming sector to keep up domestic output.

The new agriculture plan meanwhile introduces new yardsticks to assess the nation’s potential food production capacity. Based on today’s agricultural acreage and farming population, they provide estimates on whether Japan can produce enough food to meet its calorie needs in the event food imports are halted. In two of the four sets of calculations that use different patterns on which types of crops would be produced at what proportions, the estimates show that Japan has the potential to produce enough food — irrespective of nutrition balance — to meet domestic consumption.

While it is not clear if the scenarios used in the estimates are plausible enough, they may trigger more level-headed discussions on the nation’s food security.