In Japan, farmers are a dying species

Tags: Op-ed
In Japan, farmers are a dying species
AFP
SAD STATE: As a consequence of changing food habits particularly amongst the younger generation, consumption of rice is shrinking and today the Japanese government is paying farmers to leave their fields fallow
In spite of intense pressure and some concessions concerning security issues US President Barack Obama, on his recent state visit to Japan, did not manage to substantially advance the long drawn out negotiations about the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This comprehensive free trade pact that includes the major nations in the Asia-Pacific region, with the notable exclusion of the People’s Republic of China, is aimed at shoring up the economic and political cooperation amongst the participating nations. As Washington’s attention has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific TPP has gained new relevance. Apart from the US, Japan is the most important member of TPP. This pact indeed would make no sense without the participation of the Japanese.

The reluctance of Tokyo and the endless insistence on concessions regarding agricultural produce point to the strong influence of the agricultural lobby in Japan. Although Japan is a highly industrialised and urbanised country and although agriculture contributes less than 1.5 per cent to the national GDP, farmers have politically a very strong position in Japan. They are traditionally one of the major pillars of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In fact, the electoral system enhances this influence in that it privileges less populous rural constituencies against big urban centres.

When it comes to food and agriculture, every nation seems to turn to archaic fears and worries. Rich countries like Japan and Switzerland can certainly afford to buy on the world markets whatever food produce they want and need. Their own wealth is based on industrial exports and on service industries such as banking, insurance, trade and tourism. It would, therefore, be in the interest of a fair global trading system that these rich countries buy, with the funds they have often earned from exports to developing countries, agricultural produce from them. This would not only provide the latter with valuable foreign exchange, it would also greatly enhance rural incomes and provide jobs in intensive agriculture and food processing.

One of the scary scenarios traditional Japanese politicians paint is that Japan will go hungry if it loses its agriculture. Already, Japan’s food self-sufficiency is only 40 per cent. This is not only a result of shrinking agricultural production but also a consequence of changing food habits particularly amongst the younger generation. Traditionally, rice was served with every meal. Also for breakfast, the average Japanese had a bowl of rice. Nowadays, younger Japanese eat toast, and western fast food, from pizza to hamburgers, which are very popular. The Japanese seem to have a special liking for Italian food. All this implies a greater need for wheat which cannot be produced in Japan and has to be imported. At the same time, consumption of rice is shrinking and today the Japanese government is paying farmers not to plant rice and leave their fields fallow.

Of the 47 prefectures into which Japan is divided, only two have a growing population. The shrinkage of population is most acute in rural areas. Ever more villages look underpopulated or even deserted. As there are not many job opportunities in the countryside and as rice growing is a back-breaking activity, young rural Japanese move to the cities for a more exciting, easier life. Latest statistics show that today the average age of a Japanese farmer is 65 years! It seems only a question of time until the farming population has completely died out.

A number of schemes have been implemented to stop this trend. The option that other countries with an ageing population have chosen, namely the import of labour and the opening up to immigration is not an option for Japan with its island mentality and with a deep seated fear of losing the advantages of an extremely coherent society. The only viable solution is that the job of farmer is made more attractive and that with new technologies and new earning potentials, young Japanese are tempted to return to the countryside.

One thing is clear, to cater to the lobby of the traditional rice farmers is a certain path to ruin. The Japanese may be very proud of their very special rice and also the very special sake, rice wine, they produce from it. But even here, we see a change of tastes, as younger Japanese turn to beer and foreign wine. However, the future is not all bleak. During the past two decades, in east Asia and notably in China, we have witnessed the most substantial growth of higher middle class incomes in history. Increasingly, these people have become more aware of healthy and high quality foods. This is exactly the area in which Japan excels. At present, two major hubs for air transportation are being established in Haneda near Tokyo and in Okinawa. At the same time, a major Japanese transport company is refining and upgrading its transport network. The goal is to guarantee for the whole of eastern Asia overnight delivery and to satisfy the special needs for the distribution of perishable goods. It is only a question of time until the special Japanese melons that sell 100 and more dollars apiece will be on the shopping market shelves in Shanghai, Bangkok and Jakarta.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)

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