Japan's ag policies difficult to digest


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Let's not throw stones: That was my first thought when I heard about some of Japan's strange and protectionist farm policies. I came to the Far East last week for a week-long agriculture tour at the 51st annual Congress of International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ). The people, food and culture are amazing. The Wagyu beef and sushi are out of this world. But the ag policies are more difficult to digest.

Yes, every country's ag trade policies are flawed. Considering the disastrous state of the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks these days, no country can claim total innocence.

 Taeko Sugawara dries rice the old-fashioned way, near Hokkaido, Japan.

But should one country be allowed to keep the status quo while other countries are forced to liberalize trade? That's the assumption here and in other small, rice-dominated countries like South Korea, where protectionist policies and non-tariff trade barriers are common. In Japan there is a 800% tariff on imported rice and 330% on imported butter. Rice imports are practically shut off. Yet the country sells automobiles worldwide and will overtake GM this year in the United States. So what's fair?

Nobuhiro Suzuki, ag economist at the University of Tokyo, tried to make a case for why Japan could not possibly go along with free trade rules being considered in WTO.

 "Japan makes every effort to meet WTO rules," he says. "We already abolished price supports. But we need to change WTO rules. It's necessary for Japanese agriculture to survive."

National security. Japan only produces 40% of the food its population needs. It is now one of the world's largest importers of food, a fact that makes leaders here go into a tizzy, but also provides a good line of defense: How can you claim we have closed our market access when we must import 60% of our food needs?

"It's a national security interest to be self-sufficient in food,•bCrLf says Suzuki. "At 40%, Japan is a nation at risk.•bCrLf He uses President Bush's own words to make his point, quoting from a National Cattlemen's Beef Association meeting in 2002: "Thank goodness we don't have to rely on somebody else's meat to make sure our people are healthy and well-fed,•bCrLf Bush said.

Even with the self-sufficiency concern, rice production is plentiful here — they have a two-year oversupply. What's wrong with this equation?

Foremost, diets are changing. Ten years ago you saw one or two McDonald's in Tokyo; today there may be over 100. The same goes for Domino's Pizza, KFC, and a host of other fast-food chains. As Japan rushes to Westernize, its diet is changing (and becoming unhealthier, but that's a topic for another day).

The older generation is wringing its hands over this trend. Rice is not just a staple in Japan. It is an emotional link to the soul of its people. Rice has been grown here since before Jesus Christ. Locally-grown rice sells for a premium at the store, mostly because there are few, if any other choices. You may argue that it's logical for rice to be grown elsewhere and shipped in, but you would be stomping on Japanese pride.

The other growing trend is food safety fears. Japan as a people are extremely clean, conscientious •and jittery about what they eat. They believe anything home-grown is better- and safer -  than imported food. That may be why it's so easy for the government to put up nonsensical barriers when some small thing happens to a load of beef coming in from the United States. In a nationwide poll, the number one decision-making factor facing Japanese housewives in grocery stores is not taste, not price, but rather food safety.

That's not what I want to be thinking about the next time I pick out steaks for the grill.

Next week I'll tell a little more about the challenges facing Japanese farmers as they struggle to modernize their beautiful, yet, obsolete ag system.




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