An Uphill Battle in Sendai

Japan's agriculture was ripe for reform even before tsunami destroyed fragile farm fields in country's 'rice basket'

Last week's earthquake and tsunami catastrophe in Japan hit close to home for me.

Four years ago the International Federation of Agriculture Journalists (IFAJ) held its annual meeting in Sendai, Japan. It was the first time IFAJ had ever held its annual congress in the Far East. As a leader in IFAJ, I was one of many journalists privileged to see Japanese agriculture firsthand. Many relationships were built from that experience, and many of the areas we visited during the IFAJ Congress are now wiped out.

Northern Japan is sort of the bread basket – er, rice basket – of Japan. It is mostly rural with only 10% of the population. The tsunami destroyed an untold amount of rice paddy farmland.

We began reaching out to our Japanese colleagues immediately after the news broke last Friday. The IFAJ Japanese leader, Masaru Yamada (second from right, bottom photo), emailed to say he was safe on a business trip to New Zealand, and that he was able to talk to his family who remained safe back in Tokyo. I also was able to learn one of my Japanese ag economist friends who works in Tokyo was safe. I'm still waiting to hear from others.

Now the IFAJ is trying to coordinate a relief fund for the agricultural journalist group in Japan. We are hoping to help galvanize a global effort with the thousands of agricultural journalists who are members of IFAJ around the world. 

One colleague, Tadashi Murata, has been in touch and sent this link that shows the devastation from a NASA satellite.

"The center of Sendai city is far away, about six miles from the ocean," he says. "Tsunami attacked the coast about 3 miles in from the ocean. This area includes the Sendai airport. And now we have a nuclear plant problem, too. The company and government tells us the truth, I hope. The train station is just chaos everyday, because we have too many people in the Tokyo area."

Crossroads Japanese agriculture was already at a crossroads before this disaster. Most of us only know Japan as a rich country that is very important trade partner for U.S. farmers. It is the world's largest importer of corn. Corn demand from Japan may decline as the disaster disrupted grain-unloading operations and feed production. Zen-Noh, Japan’s top buyer, suspended corn unloading operations for U.S. vessels due to power outages.

From a food standpoint, Japan cannot feed itself even under normal conditions. Its own farmers can only supply 40% of its consumer needs.

Not surprisingly, the farm culture here revolves around rice, which was grown here since before the time of Christ. An ancient culture rich in farming tradition is being forced to come to grips with the hard realities of globalization.

Japan has one of the world’s most highly subsidized and protected agricultural economies. Yet government officials here say the farm population is aging, and there’s little evidence that young people want to take over. Many Japanese farms are smaller than 10 acres, so they’re not economically viable.

The country's ag leaders were working on slow, steady reform of the industry when the catastrophe happened.

It seems unbelievable to think this prosperous nation has thousands of people now on the streets, searching for their next meal.

To see some of the pictures from our 2007 visit to Sendai, click here. If ou want to donate to the Japanese Red Cross, go here.

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