War, inflation stoke Japan fears over food security

RUSSIAN MISSILES pounding Ukraine have spooked Japan into boosting defense spending. Now, with tensions rising over the Taiwan Strait, calls are growing to address another security threat: shriveling rice paddies.

For decades, Japanese consumers have been eating less rice and fish in favor of more bread, meat and edible oil, leading the country’s calorie-based food self-sufficiency ratio to slump to 37% in 2020 from 73% in 1965 — the lowest among major economies. Toshiyuki Ito, retired vice admiral for Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, said the government’s abandonment of rice paddies and other agricultural land is leaving the country more vulnerable than ever.

“They don’t do anything for national security,” Mr. Ito, now a professor at Kanazawa Institute of Technology, said about Japan’s ministries responsible for food production. “They think only about economic efficiency.”

The impact of higher global grain prices, fertilizer shortages and fuel inflation, exacerbated by a weaker yen, have already been filtering through to Japanese consumers in recent months, with supermarkets marking up everything form instant ramen noodles to ice cream. But any major blockade or disruption to sea lanes around China and the Taiwan Strait could have bigger implications than just price inflation.

Unlike the US and EU, Japan would have little to fall back on in the event food imports were to dry up. To ensure the country’s national security, it’s crucial for Japan to increase the amount of rice and wheat grown domestically, according to Nobuhiro Suzuki, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Tokyo.

“In terms of national security, food should come before weapons,” he said. “If you don’t have food, you can’t fight.”

Japan’s shift away from a rice-dominated diet was driven in part by higher per capita income. An expansion in global trade ushered in more imported foods, while exposure to travel and television encouraged more diverse eating habits. The growing ranks of working women and single people also brought about lifestyle changes and the embrace of fast food — the country boasts the third-largest number of McDonalds outlets after the US and China.

Per-capita seafood consumption has fallen to under 25 kilograms a year from over 40 kilograms two decades ago, and those who choose fish are increasingly opting for fattier imports, such as mackerel and salmon from Norway and Chile, according to government data. Another major factor behind the decline in the self-sufficiency ratio has been Japan’s near-total dependency on imported grains for animal feed. That means most domestically raised beef isn’t counted in self-sufficiency calculations.

The increased reliance on imports worries former agriculture minister Hiroshi Moriyama. In June, he led a group of ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers that submitted a report to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, calling for more government action on food security.

“Through the Ukraine situation, we’ve realized that what you can do domestically, you should,” he said in an interview. “You have to produce as much as you can at home, including fertilizers and seeds.”

Consumption of the traditional staple, rice, has slumped for decades, while the percentage of wheat that’s produced domestically has halved over the past five decades to about 13%. Almost all wheat consumed in Japan is shipped from countries such as the US, Canada and Australia.

“What happens if China invades Taiwan?” asked Kazuhito Yamashita, a former agriculture ministry official who is now research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies. “If Japan got involved, its own sea lanes would be destroyed. Food imports from the US, Australia and the EU would stop. The whole of Japan would lose physical access (to imports) and it would lead to famine.”

The government is in the process of carving out a new budget for food security as part of next year’s spending, not an easy task as the aging and indebted nation also seeks funds for a promised radical upgrade of its military. The Cabinet Office recently set out a new economic plan, which forms the basis for the next budget, calling for increased domestic production of animal feed along with wheat, rice and other foodstuffs. But that’s more easily said than done.

One reason for the fall in domestic wheat production has been a decline in “double cropping,” in which farmers use their fields to grow and harvest wheat before flooding them to grow rice later in the year. An ageing and shrinking farming population, and the rise of part-time farmers who work other jobs and don’t have time for two crops, means most rice paddies lie unused for much of the year.

“I grow rice from May to October. From November to April it’s snowing, so I can’t do anything else,” said Itsuo Kenmochi, a third-generation rice farmer in Niigata, northern Japan. He said he’s struggled to make a living off the farm as production costs rise and rice prices fail to keep pace. “I’m doing this because I have the rice fields. If I didn’t, I would have given up,” he said.

Government officials and the farming industry have tried over the years to encourage consumers to eat more rice. Nearly all of the rice eaten in Japan — mostly a translucent, short-grain variety called Japonica — is grown in the country, and bureaucrats have calculated that getting people to eat just an extra mouthful of it at each meal could raise the food self-sufficiency ratio by 1%.

There’s been no success so far: the average Japanese person now eats 53 kilograms of rice per year, less than half of what was eaten in the mid-1960s.  Surveys have shown people are trying to avoid loading up on carbohydrates for health reasons, and an ageing population means fewer people have an appetite for extra servings.

Many younger workers also say cooking Japanese rice properly, which involves soaking grains for up to an hour beforehand, is too time-consuming. These days, people are more likely to start the day with toasted bread and yogurt, rather than with rice, miso soup and grilled fish.

Faced with declining rice consumption, and demand from the politically powerful farming bloc to support prices, the government has used a variety of measures to reduce rice production since around 1970. It currently offers subsidies to farmers who switch from producing rice for the dinner table to other crops including low-grade feed rice, and rice used for flour. Yet demand is declining faster than production, and wholesale prices have fallen over 20% in the past decade, according to government data.

Former agriculture ministry official Mr. Yamashita advocates what could be considered a radical strategy: abandoning the policy of reducing production, and allowing prices to fall.

By improving yields and expanding the area under cultivation, rice production could actually be expanded to 16 million tons a year from the current seven million, Mr. Yamashita said. The resulting lower prices would make Japanese rice more attractive as an export product. In the event of a contingency, the government could simply halt exports and the population could survive at least for a while on rice, he said.

Mr. Yamashita conceded there are barriers to restructuring Japan’s mosaic of tiny farms — the average area for an agricultural operation is 3.3 hectares, compared with 180 hectares in the US.

Some enterprising farmers have made the best of the aging and shrinking population by incorporating their neighbors’ fields into their own holdings. Among them is Mizuho Kaido, a 36-year-old growing rice in Toyama prefecture, about 250 km from Tokyo. She and her family have expanded their farm to almost 90 times its original size by renting fields from people no longer able to work them, and minimized costs by automating as much as possible. But she, too, is worried about the future of rice farming.

“People are letting go of their land due to old age,” she said. “I’m not worried now, but I have a sense of crisis about the next generation.”

Lawmaker Moriyama said he holds out little hope for a substantial increase in rice exports. Japan managed to sell only 22,833 tons of the grain overseas last year, compared with the 8 million tons exported by Thailand. Because of its high price, Japanese  rice remains a luxury item sold mainly at high-end supermarkets or served at sushi restaurants in cities like Hong Kong. At Singapore’s Cold Storage supermarket, for example, a 2 kilogram bag of Niigata rice costs 23.70 Singapore dollars ($17.14), more than three times rice from Thailand.

Mr. Moriyama wants next year’s budget to include subsidies for factories making fertilizer from manure, to get around the high import prices for chemical varieties. In the longer term, he said, Japan needs to rethink its basic law on agriculture, which is based on the presumption that inexpensive imports will always be available.

“Up until now, we were only thinking about efficiency,” he said. “Now it’s hard to assume that we can just import cheap products from overseas.”

The former navy official Mr. Ito said the government needs to stop allowing farmland to dry up, and should be prepared to buy up surplus production.

“If you’re really talking about national security, you need to invest more money,” he said. — Bloomberg

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