Food self-sufficiency rate at its lowest level, a crisis for Japan

Crisis in Ukraine aggravates competition for food products

The situation in Ukraine is a moral and human crisis, but it also raises fears of a very serious food crisis.

This is of particular concern for Japan, whose food self-sufficiency rate for fiscal 2020 was 37.17% (measured in calories), the lowest since it entered national statistics in 1965.

The prices of cereals, starting with wheat, oil and the raw materials needed to manufacture fertilizers are soaring, and uncertainty about the supply of food products and the materials needed for their production is growing. Russia and Ukraine provide 30% of world wheat exports. Japan buys it from the United States, Canada and Australia, but the demand from countries seeking to replace their usual suppliers leads to increased competition between buyer countries.

China’s influence on the global food market

Recently, food demand from China and emerging countries has been growing at a level exceeding forecasts. The increase in Chinese demand driven by the economic recovery after the health crisis does not explain everything. If we take soybeans as an example, China imported 130 million tonnes in 2021. Japan imports 94% of the soybeans it consumes, but this only represents 3.39 million tonnes, c ie a fraction of Chinese demand.

If China were to increase its purchases of soybeans a little further, it is not impossible that the exporting countries would stop selling them to Japan. It and other emerging countries have the capacity to buy in large quantities at high prices, and the price of imported soybeans is approaching the price of that produced in Japan. Container ships tend to no longer pass through Japanese ports, leading to higher shipping prices for Japan, which is already a “losing buyer”.

In terms of fertilizers, Japan imports 100% of the phosphate and potash it uses to produce them. At a time when it becomes more difficult to obtain them because of the limits imposed by China on its exports, Russia, which is another major exporting country, is embarking on a conflict which further darkens the prospects for supply. China is the largest producer of rock phosphate, Russia the fourth, and for potash, Belarus ranks second, Russia third, and China fourth.

Globally, unusual weather events increase supply uncertainties, and this, combined with demand pressures, increases the risk of a price spike. Due to the high cost of oil, the demand for biofuels made from cereals such as corn is increasing, and this amplifies the rise in prices. An unpredictable situation like an international conflict can only lead to a sudden deterioration of the situation, and this is what is happening now with the Ukrainian crisis.

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Guaranteeing food security, an absent topic

In his speech on the occasion of the opening of the plenary session of the Diet, on January 17, 2022, Prime Minister Kishida spoke of ensuring economic security, but not that of food security. Agricultural policy has only been approached from the angle of promoting exports and applications of artificial intelligence (using information technology and robotics to advance productivity, precision, and the reduction energy expenditure). Now that it is clear that Japan is a “losing buyer”, especially compared to China, that the prices of foodstuffs and the raw materials necessary for their production are soaring, and that uncertainty is growing so much about Japan’s capacity to continue to ensure its food supply only on the continuity of national agricultural production, we can only say that the government is not sufficiently aware of the crisis since it puts forward the promotion of exports and the modernization of its Agriculture.

My point is not to reject export promotion, but at a time when the food crisis is approaching in a Japan with an extremely low rate of food self-sufficiency, at only 37%, the priority should be to make every effort to guarantee national production and not the promotion of exports.

Moreover, to say that agricultural exports have reached the amount of 1,000 billion yen (7.56 billion euros) is to embellish things, because according to other calculations, the figure of what can really be called ‘exports of Japanese agricultural products would not even reach 100 billion yen. Many products processed and made from imported raw materials, such as whiskey, coffee, chocolate, miso, or soy sauce, are included in the first estimate. Brandishing the futile goal of multiplying these exports by five to reach 5,000 billion yen does it make sense? Finally, I do not reject the application of modern technologies to agriculture, but it cannot solve everything. (See our article: Record Japanese Food Exports: Trillion Yen Target Reached)

The danger of thinking short-term for Japan

The proposals made in the report titled “A strategy to guarantee economic security”, published by the Liberal Democratic Party (PLD, in power) in December 2020, provided the basis for the general policy discourse. One of them is “to strengthen the guarantee of food security”, but the words “to improve the rate of food self-sufficiency” do not appear there. We can deduce that it is only a question of thinking about how to supply the country in the context of the international economy.

It amounts to believing that it is enough to be ready to spend what it will take to buy what you need, and that this effectively guarantees security, at the lowest cost. But today, we are undoubtedly faced with a situation where this will no longer be possible. Discussing the security guarantee without taking it into account is inconceivable.

The argument that one can rely on food imports while pursuing trade liberalization to ensure economic security has the flaw of not being based on a comprehensive and long-term perspective. Although maintaining domestic food production costs more in the short term than importing food, it is actually less expensive in the long term, taking into account the cost of unforeseen situations in which it would be impossible to buy foodstuffs even being ready to pay. In the field of energy, the irreversible accident at a nuclear power plant taught Japan the dangers of short-termism and the search for the lowest costs by favoring nuclear power.

Moreover, relying on market competition on the sole basis of economic efficiency in the narrow sense carries a significant risk, that of not spending what is necessary to guarantee healthy and non-harmful products. And if the security guarantee relating to the quantitative supply of foodstuffs collapses, particularly in a country like Japan whose rate of food self-sufficiency is only 37%, it will be necessary to resign oneself to importing products whose safety is not assured. In such a situation, it is to be feared that the guarantee of qualitative safety will also collapse.

No awareness of the risks involved in a drop in milk or rice production

At a time when there is no doubt that the risk of a food crisis is increasing, the government is demanding a reduction in the production of rice and milk, which would be in surplus. Why such a reduction, when it is more and more possible that Japan will no longer be able to obtain the foodstuffs it needs?

Japanese people’s incomes have actually been declining for nearly 30 years, and their food consumption has been steadily declining. The health crisis has accentuated this. The number of people who cannot eat what they would like is increasing, and this is not due to surpluses because the demand has fallen, but to an insufficient supply of what should be offered. We must now prepare for the approaching food crisis, by increasing production to provide humanitarian aid, help consumers, and thus reduce stocks and help producers.

Japanese agriculture is the most protected in the world: it’s not true

Today, the whole nation must reflect on the situation. Retail needs to stop looking for lower prices from producers, and consumers to stop thinking that what they want above all is low prices. Without farmers, there will be nothing left to eat. Let’s strengthen the networks between producers and consumers, get out of the “me first, now, the cheapest” attitude, and establish a sustainable circular economy with public support.

The nation has been persuaded that Japanese agriculture is the most protected in the world, but the opposite is true. In the United States, farmers facing a drop in income due to the health crisis have received direct aid totaling 3.3 trillion yen, and the government has purchased 330 billion yen of food from them. which he then redistributed to the poorest. In Japan, the amounts spent for these purposes are almost non-existent.

Before these emergency support measures were put in place, national and international food aid schemes for the most deprived already existed in the United States, Canada and the European Union, in which governments buy cereals and dairy products at a guaranteed minimum price. This also does not exist in Japan. And in these countries, subsidies to offset farmers’ production costs are paid directly to them.

In other words, Japanese farmers who persevere despite what is actually the most inadequate protection in the world are “elite units.” However, those who manage to rank tenth in the world in terms of productivity can be proud. I would like this to give them confidence in their determination to protect the nation.

A country that does not control its food loses its independence

Supporting industries at the national level that protect life, the environment, regions, territory and borders is a matter of course in Europe and the United States. Japan alone does not understand this. The government should spend what it takes to create a safety net and be able to take measures to overcome unforeseen situations.

Let’s take an example: the health crisis has affected the catering sector, whose rice consumption has decreased. This led to a fall in the price of rice, which fell this year to 9,300 yen, compared to 12,100 yen last year. 350 billion yen would be enough to offset the 7 million tonnes corresponding to this drop. It is vital for the nation. Making canteens free in elementary schools and middle schools across the country would only cost around 500 billion yen. This would protect the future of the children. Food is certainly necessary for national defence. Isn’t Japan paying the United States 6.6 trillion yen for the purchase of 147 F35 fighters?

What the nation is asking for is not to offer Japanese and American companies its national interest without any limits, but to develop a comprehensive set of measures and a vision that ensures stable power supply, to protect its life, its environment, its regions, its territory.

(Title photo: Pixta)

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Food self-sufficiency rate at its lowest level, a crisis for Japan


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