Japan’s food security may be put at risk with the abolition — effective April 1 — of the Main Crop Seeds Law, which obligates the national and prefectural governments to ensure a stable supply of seeds for rice and other principal agricultural products. Despite the risk that the move brings, much of the media has not shown interest in the issue and little has been reported.
Under the 1952 seeds law, which was aimed at boosting the harvest of staple foods such as rice, wheat and soybeans, agricultural experimental stations — public research institutes under the national and prefectural governments — designated the seeds of improved breeds as recommended seeds and sold them at a low cost to farmers.
With the abolition of the law, there is the possibility that the functions of these agricultural experimental stations will be reduced and that the prices of seeds will increase because they will no longer receive government subsidies.
Although many seeds developed by private-sector companies possess excellent attributes, they are mostly F1 (filial 1) hybrids, whose desired traits cannot be passed on to subsequent generations. This makes it meaningless for farmers to collect and store them for the next growing season. If they rely on such seeds, they will have no choice but to buy them, including the needed chemicals, fertilizers and equipment best suited for growing the specific seed varieties, from the companies that developed them. Thus farmers could possibly become “serfs” to global corporate interests.
For manufacturers of farming chemicals and pharmaceuticals — as well as the trading firms handling them — the agricultural sector is a source of stable profits. That is why such international conglomerates have looked on agricultural cooperatives, which have opposed their entry into Japan’s agriculture, as an enemy.
But the abolition of the seeds law goes beyond the feud between farmers and global companies. Take, for example, the case of rice, which is grown with seeds from about 300 different breeds to suit varying geographical requirements and growing conditions. Since private companies will sell only breeds that provide the greatest profits, rice will lose much of its diversity, both geographically and in types of breeds. The result will be rice becoming more vulnerable to harmful insects and other dangers, including climate change. In case of a disastrously poor harvest, Japan will have no choice but to beg the United States to sell it rice.
The abolition of the seeds law goes hand in hand with the enactment in May last year of the “Agricultural Competitiveness Strengthening and Support Law.” The latter law is designed to promote the sharing of information and seed producing technology from the public-sector institutions with the private sector.
Indeed, on Nov. 15 last year, Masaaki Okuhara, administrative vice minister of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, issued a notice to prefectural governments that required them to maintain know-how on seed production and pass it on to the private sector.
Why is it that the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in such a hurry to abolish the seeds law despite various disadvantages its abolition will bring to taxpayers and the general public? If the circumstances are considered, the likely answer is that in March 2013, Abe clandestinely pledged abolition of the law and carrying out other deregulation as an “admission fee” for joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement talks. This is only a hypothesis because the government has not released any information on the details of the TPP talks. But the United States is shrewd. It has obtained what it wants although it has withdrawn from the TPP. The Abe administration is unilaterally implementing its promise without asking for reciprocation.
While major media outlets remained virtually silent on the abolition of the seeds law, the monthly Gekkan Nippon carried in its February issue an article written in an easy-to-understand manner that enumerated problems arising from the decision.
The article was based on 15 years of work by a reporter of the magazine who harvested rice in the suburbs of Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. But it was simplistic when it stated that Monsanto was the true culprit and had conspired to abolish the law, as will be explained later in this column.
Japan is not the sole target of multinational corporations engaged in the seed business. During the 1980s and 1990s, American multinationals stepped up their purchase of small- to medium-size seed businesses, and private businesses took over the role of main suppliers of seeds in the U.S., which used to be played by state agricultural experimental stations and state universities.
According to Shuji Hisano, professor at Kyoto University, 70 percent of soybean seeds in 1980 were those produced by the public sector. But the share plummeted to 10 percent in 1998. About 80 percent of the seeds were supplied by industry giants such as Dow Chemical, DuPont and Monsanto, with most of the seeds being of gene-recombination types.
Although the TPP accord was negotiated by the governments, the most powerful players in the talks were multinational corporations. Friction over matters such as investment rules and deregulation surfaced not between countries but with multinationals. That is why the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism, which enables private business to sue governments, has been strongly criticized by opponents of the TPP.
The biggest beneficiaries of the commercialization of agriculture through such means as the abolition of the seeds law are not countries like the U.S. but global business enterprises in the pharmaceutical and chemical fields, such as Dow Chemical, DuPont and Monsanto. For example, why was Monsanto taken over by Bayer of Germany if it had been part of the U.S.’s national interests? Last year, DuPont merged with Dow Chemical. In 2016, China National Chemical Corp., known as ChemChina, purchased Syngenta of Switzerland.
Thus globalization of pharmaceutical and chemical conglomerates is progressing in a dynamic manner without regard to national boundaries. That is why the monthly Gekkan Nippon’s criticizing Monsanto alone is misdirected.
What actions are needed to cope with various problems arising from the abolition of the seeds law? The best way will be for lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition camps to get together and jointly submit a bill to abolish the law that abolished the seeds law. If that is too difficult, each prefecture must enact a by-law to maintain public involvement in the supply of seeds.
This prefecture-level action needs to be done expeditiously before foreign companies fully step into the seed supply business and resort to the ISDS mechanism to sue prefectural governments on the grounds that they have deprived them of profits.
Fortunately, the U.S. has withdrawn from the TPP accord and the projected economic partnership agreement between Japan and the European Union does not include provisions for investment rules like the ISDS mechanism. It is time for prefectural governments to take action quickly.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the March issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic issues. More English articles can be read at www.sentaku-en.com.