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Will Japan run out of rice?

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Reuters/Thierry Gouegnon/File

(Read caption) View of a rice field. JA Zenchu, a mammoth organization in Japan is steadfast in supporting tariffs on foreign rice where as the LDP want to stop subsidies to farmers that pay them for not growing rice.

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Japan’s issues with sustainability, food self-sufficiency, and food security find their perfect metaphor with rice – a staple not only caught up in tradition and national mythology, but in the ever-changing world of global economics.

As Japan began reconstruction after the end of World War II, the paramount issue was to feed a nation of hungry people. Infrastructure was ruined and farmland abandoned. Agricultural reforms compelled landlords to sell off their large land holdings to the tenant farmers who worked those lands. Newly-incentivized farmers quickly brought the agricultural sector back into production.

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Japan has been doing all right for itself. In terms of total volume of food produced, it is number five in the world. It’s a nation obsessed with food self-sufficiency and food security. And though its rate of about 65 percent self-sufficiency is a cause of anxiety for many a citizen of Japan, Japan does pretty well in keeping its people fed.

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Considering that Japan is a nation that supports its small farmers, produces a fair amount of food, and keeps policies in place to maintain a certain quality and status quo, you might think Japan has got food figured out. But with the distorting forces of the global economy, a graying of the population who of those till the land, a huge agricultural cooperative that may not be representing the true needs of its constituents, and a ruling government party that actively opposes the cooperative, Japan is going through some huge changes in how it thinks about agriculture.

At the center of these issues is the JA Zenchu (Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives), a mammoth organization that not only represents the interests of 47 prefectural agricultural co-ops but also controls a huge insurance company and one of Japan’s largest banks. JA Zenchu has been steadfast in supporting tariffs on foreign rice (up to nearly 800 percent) and has been opposed to Japan joining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

In the other corner of the struggle over food, there’s the current government, controlled by Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Abe and his allies would love to break JA Zenchu, opening farming up to bigger business concerns, cutting tariffs, allowing Japan to become a bigger player in international commodities markets, and stopping subsidies to farmers that pay them for not growing rice (which helps keep rice prices high).

In the current battle between JA Zenchu and the LDP, the LDP seems to be winning. And it’s not just on the political front. Market concerns are changing the roles of middlemen, unions and wholesalers. For example, the huge grocery store chain, Aeon, is beginning to buy rice directly from producers.

The farmers themselves are an elderly lot – average age around 66 – and they’ve long depended on the advocacy of the JA Zenchu and protectionist policies of the government. These policies may be on the way out. But even parties like the LDP still depend on rural turnout during elections. They want to keep the folks on the farm happy. Consequently, they’re pushing for an end to production controls by 2018, but still subsidizing farmers who switch to other crops or produce rice for livestock.

On one hand, a system is in place that supports small farmers – and by extension, crop diversity. But the co-op that protects these farmers seems more concerned with insurance and banking. And then there’s the current government trying to push Japan out of its decades-long economic slump through monetary policy and a rush to corporatize farming. How it’s working and whether it should be the direction Japan takes remains the big question.  Rice will remain on the Japanese table. How it gets there is up for grabs.