Japan's jittery consumers need a little faith in science

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TOYKO— Consider living in a country where your farmers produce less than 40 per cent of the food you eat -- the lowest of any developed country -- and you depend on other countries to make up the difference. It might well give you the jitters.        

That appears to be what's happening here in Japan. I'm here as part of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists' 51st congress, listening to Japanese experts outline their concerns about food, agriculture and the future of their country. 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 many young people want to take over the reins when their fathers retire. Farm land the size of Tokyo, one of the world's largest cities, is abandoned through the country.

An ancient culture rich in farming tradition is being forced to come to grips with the hard realities of globalization. How ironic in a country that practically invented globalization with the advent of Japanese auto technology.

Thanks in part to traditions and those heavily protected commodities like rice production, many Japanese farms are smaller than 10 hectares and they're not economically viable. And in a recent study, Japanese consumers rated food safety as their number one factor in making food purchases. Not taste, not price - safety. Doesn't sound like it would make a trip to the grocer much fun.  Japanese grocery stores are going into a frenzy these days, trying to make food on their shelves appear more benign than grandma's apple pie.

The Japanese government is trying to solve the food safety and self sufficiency problems in one clean sweep by convincing consumers that the only safe food product is a locally-grown product. Unfortunately they've experienced a few hiccups along the way - an e-coli outbreak in 1996, a foot and mouth problem in 2000, BSE in 2001, and an "inappropriate•bCrLf food labeling problem in 2002 (Japanese officials don't like harsh words like 'scandal').

 Even so, nobody in Japan ever died from any of these scares. So why are the Japanese so paranoid?

Consider Japan's position on GMOs -- Not even interested. This is a country driven by science and technology, yet when it comes to GMOs, science is off the table.

Leading authorities in the Japanese agriculture department told us they want to encourage farm consolidation, because they know it will make the remaining farms more economically viable. Yet they also want to maintain Japan's rich farming traditions. They're strident about preserving and exporting Japanese food culture.

But sometimes you can't have both worlds. Try to recall what the auto industry was like before the Japanese got involved. They embraced technology and used it to their advantage and almost ran the Big Three into the ground. Yet food is another story. And the attitude the Japanese take towards their food is why they're struggling.

If you live in a country the size of Japan, you must have faith in your food safety regulations and faith in science, to get over the fear of eating. The food in Japan is superb - something to enjoy, not fear.

If the Japanese could embrace science and technology in their food industry they way they have in auto manufacturing, they'd have no reason to worry about going to the grocer.


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