The long-term decline of Japan’s self-sufficiency in food continues. Last year, the food self-sufficiency in calorie terms fell to a record-low 37 percent — meaning the nation covered less than 40 percent of the food it consumes with domestic output — and the government’s target of boosting the ratio to 45 percent seems as distant as ever. The steep gap, coupled with the reality of the nation’s farming, raises the question of whether it’s adequate to keep food self-sufficiency as a key yardstick in agricultural policy.

The decline in food self-sufficiency in 2018 was blamed on sharp cuts to domestic output of wheat and soybeans due to unfavorable weather. Until the mid-1960s, domestic production covered more than 70 percent of the food consumed in this country. But the self-sufficiency in food has since been on a long-term decline, dipping below 40 percent for the first time in 1993, when a cold summer resulted in an extremely poor rice crop of rice and a subsequent shortage.

The government has set targets to reverse the fall in self-sufficiency. But a target set in 2010 to increase the ratio to 50 percent by 2020 was revised downward to 45 percent just five years later as it was deemed too difficult to achieve. Now it is deemed almost impossible to achieve the new target by 2025. The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry says it hopes to raise the food self-sufficiency by promoting the output and consumption of domestic farm products. But behind its long-term decline are structural problems in the nation’s agriculture, such as the declining number and steep aging of farm workers, as well as changes in Japanese consumers’ dietary habits during the postwar period.

The picture of food supply and consumption has changed in this country, with consumption of rice — a staple food nearly 100 percent domestically produced — dropping, and that of meat and dairy products rising. If part of the domestic output of livestock products such as meat is based on imported feed, that portion of food supply will be counted as imports in the calorie-based calculation of self-sufficiency in food. But even if it’s assumed that all the feed used in livestock production is domestically supplied, the self-sufficiency will still be about 46 percent — meaning Japan relies on imports for more than half the food it consumes.

Indeed, few countries in the world count their self-sufficiency in food in calorie terms. There is criticism that the formula places too much weight on rice and too little on low-calorie vegetables. In output value terms, food self-sufficiency in 2018 was 66 percent — still the second-lowest on record and a far cry from the government target of 73 percent in 2025.

At the same time officials are calling for boosting self-sufficiency in food, the nation’s population of farm workers is rapidly aging and shrinking. The number plunged from 2.05 million in 2010 to 1.4 million this year, with the average age of farmers reaching 66.6 as of 2018. Agriculture is among the sectors that are covered by the government’s program introduced in April to accept more foreign workers to make up for the domestic manpower shortage. But it is questionable if the measure will serve as more than a temporary stopgap since the workers’ stay is limited to five years.

Government programs to promote larger-scale farming for greater efficiency — by renting unused farmland to farmers and businesses seeking to expand their operations — have not made much of an impact as small-lot farmlands continue to dot farming communities in mountainous areas. Meanwhile, the government estimates that the impact of free trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the economic partnership agreement withe European Union could cut annual domestic agricultural output by more than ¥100 billion.

Calls for increasing food self-sufficiency are often made on the grounds of food security: To avoid food shortages in case food imports are suspended due to emergencies overseas such as war or famine. Some say the risk is overblown because as long as sources of food imports are diversified, a suspension of imports from one country can be covered by increasing the purchase from another. When the United States halted its soybean exports in 1973, Japan experienced a soybean shortage that pushed up prices of soy-based foods such as tofu but not an overall food shortage. That prompted the government to diversify the sources of soybean imports to such countries as Brazil and Canada. Sustaining and expanding the global free trade system should also enhance the security of Japan’s food supply.

The farm ministry reportedly plans to compile as early as next March a basic plan to set the direction of the nation’s agriculture policy in the coming decade. The government needs to review whether food self-sufficiency should be maintained as a key yardstick in its agriculture policy — and if so, what should be the practical level necessary to secure the nation’s food supply.

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