Can Japan feed itself? | Financial Times


On the finish of the month, in supermarkets throughout Japan, common workers and a secret military of wholesalers will work the cabinets by way of the evening on a mission that none of them — from nationwide chains to native shops — are capable of discuss overtly.

When the meals retail business’s collective doorways open on October 1, consumers who’ve barely experienced inflation for the reason that early Nineties will likely be hit by essentially the most extreme value shock in nearly two generations.

The prices of greater than 6,000 each day meals gadgets may have soared in a single day; so too, say consultants whose warnings have lengthy gone unheeded, will the Japanese public’s realisation of what it means to rely on essentially the most weak meals provide system within the developed world.

Japan’s high-quality, low self-sufficiency meals system has all the time been a proxy for the march of globalisation. It may now develop into a proxy for its reversal.

The spectre of faltering meals safety, admit authorities officers, is an emblem of each the nation’s decline as an financial superpower and the decaying norms of the globalised financial system that allowed Japan to thrive.

For the previous 12 months, Japan’s grocery store business has shielded clients from a 48 per cent rise in import costs — a lot of that surge pushed by the excessive value of power and, since March, the sustained collapse of the yen to a 24-year low in opposition to the greenback.

The choreographed effort to boost costs is in step with a long time of behavior in Japan’s fragmented and aggressive grocery store business — and in an economic system that outlined the phenomenon of deflation for the remainder of the world. None would have felt snug appearing on their very own, significantly after greater than 20 years the place wages have stagnated. Now, nevertheless, except companies cross on the price to customers, they are going to battle to outlive.

Japan’s grocery store business has not too long ago shielded clients from a giant rise in import costs © Issei Kato/Reuters

There have been different shocks over time, say officers, however this one feels completely different. Excessive climate, local weather change and Covid-related disruption of logistics have highlighted the fragility of programs on which Japan has come to rely. By disrupting the worldwide flows of meals commodities, power and chemical fertiliser, Russia’s struggle in Ukraine has laid naked the massive dangers that Japan has, over a long time, allowed to develop into structural inside its meals provide system.

If tensions between Taipei and Beijing escalate right into a navy battle within the Taiwan Strait, disruption to this very important transport route can be crippling for Japan’s meals imports. With out fast agricultural reforms, warns one of many nation’s main meals consultants, the delicate fashionable Japanese weight loss plan can be despatched again to the rice and candy potato spartanism of the Forties.

The Japanese authorities has acknowledged the darkening risk that now hangs over its meals safety: the query is whether or not it has the time, the incentives, the human sources and powers of innovation required to avert catastrophe.

“What’s completely different from the previous is that Japan’s financial standing has fallen. We have to consider [a new] technique of supplying meals to everybody now that the premise that Japan should buy no matter it likes from wherever on the planet at any value is gone,” says Atsushi Suginaka, director-general for coverage co-ordination on the ministry of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

“The largest drawback dealing with agriculture is the shortage of a willingness to tackle new challenges. For an ageing inhabitants, it’s troublesome to strive one thing completely different and that’s why we want the participation of youthful individuals.”

Geopolitical obstacles

Although the October value will increase should not sufficient to smash Japanese households, they are going to present an unambiguous reminder of the nation’s meals self-sufficiency fee of simply 38 per cent, and its dependence on imports to make up the remaining energy consumed.

The self-sufficiency fee — now the bottom amongst main nations — has fallen from 73 per cent in 1965 as demand has risen for meat and different meals it can not produce by itself. A few of Japan’s dependencies, akin to wheat (83% imported), soyabeans (78% imported) and edible oils (97% imported) are exceptionally skewed.

Line chart of Calorie-based food self-sufficiency ratio (%) showing Japan’s diminishing ability to feed itself

The culinary scene Japan is famed for — from backstreet ramen noodle retailers ranked by Michelin among the many world’s best eating places, to the tempura udon dishes worshipped by traditionalists and specialist breads that triumph in worldwide baking competitions — is nearly completely depending on the skin world.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered upheaval in international meals provides as each nations are vital grain exporters, between them accounting for nearly a 3rd of the world’s traded wheat. With provides already tight, the state of affairs may worsen if international crop yields additionally decline as a result of scarcity and excessive costs of fertilisers, the place Japan’s import dependence is excessive at 75 per cent.

Even earlier than the struggle, costs for key fertilisers jumped final 12 months after the EU introduced sanctions over human rights abuses in opposition to Belarus, a number one potash producer, and China and Russia, additionally giant fertiliser exporters, put in place export curbs to safeguard home provide.

Thus far, Japan has navigated these geopolitical obstacles by securing offers with various suppliers akin to Morocco and Canada for phosphate, potassium and different fertiliser elements. Over a long time, the resource-poor nation has rigorously cultivated a classy community of buying and selling homes and financial companions in addition to contingency plans so it could actually pay money for a lot of its imported meals even in circumstances of emergencies akin to pure disasters and armed conflicts.

Bar chart showing Japan’s dependence on imports, national food consumption by type (%) Japan is particularly vulnerable in terms of wheat and livestock

However even then, officers say, Japan’s sourcing capacity will likely be severely restricted if costs proceed to rise, making it inconceivable to compete in opposition to China and different rivals with a lot greater buying energy.

Alarmed by the looming disaster, a bunch of parliamentarians from the ruling Liberal Democratic celebration in Might submitted proposals for strengthening Japan’s meals safety. A month later, when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida unveiled a draft of his “new capitalism” programme, a piece was dedicated to outlining plans to revive the agricultural business and deploy new applied sciences to make the sector extra engaging to the youthful era.

“To ascertain meals safety in Japan, meals self-sufficiency will likely be improved by creating sturdy agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries,” it learn. As a part of that effort, the federal government will goal to spice up exports of agricultural, forestry and fishery merchandise from ¥1.2tn final 12 months to ¥5tn by 2030.

Nonetheless, some agricultural ministry officers say the Kishida administration has positioned an even bigger emphasis on financial safety issues in areas akin to semiconductor and battery applied sciences within the wake of the availability chain disruptions brought on by Covid-19 and the dangers uncovered by the struggle in Ukraine. The identical sense of urgency needs to be utilized to meals safety, these officers say, particularly since Japan retains internationally aggressive expertise within the breeding of rice, fruit and veggies.

“Farming stays in Japan, and it’s nonetheless extremely regarded abroad. That’s not the case with semiconductor expertise,” Suginaka says. “There’s a threat that Japan will lose its growth abilities and wouldn’t be capable to do farming if it can not safe fertilisers from China. Then we might be in the identical state of affairs as chips. We should make it possible for we don’t lose our present benefits.” 

Homegrown options

With a succession disaster dealing with a lot of Japan’s ageing farmers, the prospects are grim for growing home manufacturing of wheat and different agricultural merchandise to cut back Japan’s dependency on imports. As an alternative, a key pillar of the Kishida administration’s meals safety agenda rests on using innovation and digital applied sciences to spice up productiveness and encourage youthful individuals into the shrinking agricultural sector.

One instance of that is the brand new enterprise capital arm of Norinchukin — an agricultural financial institution that has since 2019 established itself as an investor in a small choice of start-ups targeted on agricultural expertise. This ranges from robotic wheelbarrows for aged farmers to on-line programs for organising the dispatch of overseas staff to farms in need of human workers.

Among the many start-ups tackling Japan’s meals disaster is Algal Bio, a College of Tokyo spin-off which is researching using algae as a complement for animal protein to feed livestock or as fertilisers. The aim is to make the complete worth chain for meals merchandise self-sufficient utilizing algae that may be homegrown on nearly any type of land.

“The options for Japan’s power disaster are clear. However on the subject of agriculture, that’s not the case,” says Amane Kimura, chief government of Algal Bio, noting that the nation can flip to nuclear energy and renewable power to cut back its reliance on imported power.

Companies are researching the use of algae as a supplement for animal protein to feed livestock or as fertilisers
Corporations are researching using algae as a complement for animal protein to feed livestock or as fertilisers © Noriyuki Aida/Bloomberg

Within the case of agricultural merchandise, nevertheless, merely growing the amount of manufacturing shouldn’t be essentially the reply since Japan would nonetheless have to import fertilisers to develop the meals. “There may be an growing sense of urgency for the necessity to create a brand new worth chain for meals with a purpose to genuinely elevate the self-sufficiency fee,” Kimura provides.

Japan’s vulnerability to exterior shock arises from a wide range of elements that transcend the nation’s elementary dependence on imports of power and different important sources.

The central disaster, argues Kazuhito Yamashita, a former agricultural ministry official and now analysis director on the Canon Institute for World Research, is that the lengthy years of comparatively crisis-free reliance on imports have permitted Japan to both overlook, or actively nurture, huge issues in home agriculture.

Line chart of Value of Japan imports, by type ($bn) showing Surging price of key commodities adds to heavy cost

In frequent with the remainder of the Japanese economic system, the nation’s agriculture is positioned at fast threat by the ageing and shrinkage of the inhabitants. The countryside has skilled this significantly acutely, as its younger have migrated to cities.

However even earlier than they left and the typical age of a Japanese farmer rose to 68, Japanese agriculture was inefficient and riddled with deep structural weaknesses and distortional incentives. The common measurement of Japanese farms, restricted by a protracted historical past of prohibitively cumbersome authorized baggage related to the sale and consolidation of farmland, is extraordinarily small. The nationwide common is 3.1 hectares, however that common is considerably raised by the 30ha common within the northern island of Hokkaido.

Reform is important, consultants say, however there may be presently little political momentum behind streamlining the gross sales of agricultural land to consolidators that would in the end improve.

“Regardless of progress in agriculture reform, a a lot greater disaster could also be wanted with a purpose to set off a response giant sufficient to attain the resilience and sustainability wanted within the Japanese meals provide chain,” mentioned Morgan Stanley economist Robert Feldman.

Allow them to eat rice

In a current research of the more and more acute considerations round Japanese meals safety, Morgan Stanley analysts highlighted one of many key misconceptions which have supplied each politicians and most of the people with a false sense of safety.

Regardless of the ever growing ratio of imported to domestically produced meals, Japan has traditionally remained politically dedicated to the concept the nation needs to be 100 per cent self-sufficient in rice and that the worth of home rice ought to stay artificially excessive.

That dedication, says Yamashita, has created a number of the most harmful distortions to Japan’s meals provide, significantly as common rice consumption in Japan has fallen from a peak of 118kg a 12 months in 1962 to 53.5kg in 2018.

Within the face of that declining recognition, pushed by the truth that the inhabitants is ageing and older individuals typically eat much less meals, the hassle to take care of home rice on the highest value anybody on the planet pays for the grain has created a system the place homeowners of top of the range farmland are incentivised to not develop rice and, due to this fact, squeeze provide.

A farmer gathers rice straws on a farm in the southern Japanese city of Oita in October 2019
Japan has traditionally remained politically dedicated to the concept the nation needs to be 100 per cent self-sufficient in rice © Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Pictures

“The Japanese authorities ought to have used a coverage of permitting rice costs to fall with a purpose to management its manufacturing and improve demand for rice whereas elevating wheat costs to extend its manufacturing and management demand for wheat,” says Yamashita. “In actuality, it carried out a coverage that has achieved the precise reverse.”

The hazard behind the dogma of rice self-sufficiency, say analysts, is that it has created a complacency whereby the specter of exterior shock on the meals system is dismissed with the response, “Effectively, we’ll simply eat extra rice.”

Sadly, in response to calculations by the funding financial institution Morgan Stanley, that’s inconceivable. Wheat consumption in Japan, the financial institution mentioned in a current analysis paper, offers about 324 kcal a day per individual and rice consumption about 519 kcal. If all the wheat was changed by rice, then rice manufacturing must rise by about 62 per cent.

Tanks manoeuvre during a live drill amid intensifying threats military from China, in Pingtung county, Taiwan, earlier this month
If tensions between Taipei and Beijing escalate right into a navy battle within the Taiwan Strait, disruption to this very important transport route can be crippling for Japan’s meals imports © Ceng Shou Yi/Reuters Join

There are two potential methods Japan may try to attain this: both by discovering additional paddy land or by elevating the productiveness of every hectare underneath rice cultivation. The implied further demand of 4.8mn tonnes would require 900,000ha of latest rice paddy cultivation. The federal government, in the meantime, estimates that the entire of recoverable unused farmland in 2020 was 90,000ha.

Elevating productiveness would even be a non-starter, analysts say. Between 2000 and 2020 output per hectare grew by 0.184 per cent a 12 months on common. At this tempo, in response to Morgan Stanley’s analysis, growing output per acre by 62 per cent would take 262 years.

Diners at a restaurant during a preview of the newly built Asakusa Yokocho alley in June in Tokyo
Diners at a restaurant throughout a preview of the newly constructed Asakusa Yokocho alley in June in Tokyo © Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Pictures

In the meantime, the specter of exterior shock rises. “Japan has some very unhealthy neighbours: North Korea, China and Russia. We may have a meals disaster if there may be some form of incident within the Taiwan Strait and the imports of meals are disrupted,” provides Yamashita, who argues that the Japanese authorities’s obsession with sustaining excessive rice costs made a mockery of its said new considerations concerning meals safety.

For too lengthy, Japan had underestimated its meals safety dangers, says Akio Shibata, president of the Pure Useful resource Analysis Institute. Much like how the nation’s producers expanded by constructing vegetation worldwide, its meals technique was additionally primarily based on the pursuit of financial effectivity and international commerce — which in flip was an emblem of Japan’s standing as a world financial energy.

“The truth now could be that Japan can now not pay money for meals or power sources at affordable costs, and it must reverse its technique of relying so closely on the skin world,” Shibata mentioned. “There have been indicators of pressure from earlier than, however Japan had not taken motion pondering it was a short lived phenomenon. Now it might be too late to reverse course.”

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