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Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011

EDITORIAL

Strengthening primary industries

The government headquarters for resuscitation of food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries headed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and including all Cabinet members on Oct. 25 adopted a basic action plan to strengthen Japan's primary industries. It worked out the action plan with a view to the possibility that Japan may join the negotiations for the Transpacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP) agreement.

Irrespective of whether Japan joins the comprehensive free-trade arrangement, Japan's primary sector will be exposed to pressure for liberalization since Japan will seek free-trade agreements with other countries. The government needs to take necessary budgetary measures to quickly implement the action plan. As expected, the government plans to pay a large amount of income compensation to farmers who suffer when the prices of their products fall below production costs. One problem is where to find the necessary funds, which are expected to amount to several hundred billion yen a year. Another problem is how to design the income compensation scheme — which is already in force for farmers growing rice, wheat and soy beans — to produce the best result in raising the efficiency of Japan's agricultural production.

In pushing the action plan, the government also should take utmost care so that various roles played by the agriculture sector such as preventing floods and landslides, maintaining ecosystems and providing beautiful scenery will not be lost.

Japan's agriculture is in crisis. The average age of farmers who have been engaged in farming for at least one year is 66. People who newly take up agriculture as a vocation are not young. In 2010, a majority of new entrants into the agricultural sector were 60 or older, in part because many people decide to become farmers after they reach the mandatory retirement age in the private or public sector. Only a quarter of the new entrants were 39 or younger.

The action plan calls for measures to help young people find employment with corporations engaged in agriculture and to stabilize the businesses of young farmers. It also calls for offering "cooperation money" to those who sell or rent agricultural land to farmers who are eager to improve farming management. But the action plan fails to give any concrete details on such measures.

The action plan attaches importance to increasing the average size of farms for products like rice that require large tracts of land. It calls for creating within five years an agricultural structure in which fairly large farms — the average size in flatlands being 20 to 30 hectares and that in semi-mountainous areas being 10 to 20 hectares — become the norm. Currently, the average size of Japanese farms is 1.7 hectares, compared with the 139 hectares in the United States. To effectively implement such a plan, the government will have to come up with a well thought-out strategy and detailed measures.

Efficiently using agricultural land is a critical factor in strengthening Japan's agriculture. The action plan calls for changing the structure of agricultural committees, which have the power to approve the use of agriculture land, to improve them.

It is also important to prevent the abandonment of agricultural land. In 2010, 3,960 sq. km of farm land was abandoned — an area larger than the area of Saitama Prefecture, and nearly three times the corresponding figure in 1985. The Agricultural Cooperative Association (Zen-Noh/JA) has proposed that if a farmer stops cultivating a rice paddy, JA continue to cultivate it until a new farmer can take it over. This proposal points to the possibility that if the central and local governments and JA cooperate, they may be able to find ways to help accelerate the integration of small tracts of farm land into large ones.

The action plan also says that the central government will reach a conclusion by the end of fiscal 2011 on the formation of funds to support operators who process and sell agricultural, forestry or fishery products. It also says that the government will work out a strategy designed to promote the export of such products. One problem with this idea is that it may succeed in promoting the export of high value-added fruits and vegetables, but if Japan joins the TPP its production of staple food may not be sustainable.

In a reasonable response to the problems exposed by the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the action plan proposes to establish stations to supply renewable energy by using resources available in agricultural and fishing communities, and using the energy to promote agriculture and fisheries. The government is to reach a conclusion on this proposal by the end of fiscal 2011.

As for the promotion of forestry, the action plan calls for increasing Japan's self-sufficiency rate for wood from the current 24 percent to 50 percent. As a major goal for Japan's agriculture, the action plan calls for increasing Japan's food self-sufficiency to 50 percent from the current 39 percent. But the farm ministry estimates that if Japan joins the TPP, the rate will drop to 13 percent. One wonders how the government, seemingly eager to join the TPP talks, will be able to fill this gap.



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