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Sunday, Sep. 16, 2012

BIG IN JAPAN

Getting food on tables is increasingly difficult


The cover of Nikkei Business of Aug. 27 carried a photograph of a sirloin steak atop a sizzling platter. The meat was artfully trimmed to form the shape of the Japanese archipelago.

News photo
Fat of the Land: Nikkei Business (Aug. 27) examined how Japan will secure its future food supply.

Atop this mouth-watering graphic are words clearly aimed at curbing the reader's appetite: "Shokuryo hijo jitai sengen" (announcement of emergency food conditions), followed by a subhead that translates, "Surviving the era of gluttony and poor harvests."

Imbalances and mismanagement of the food supply have led to growing social instability in the third world. Since December 2010, rising food prices have spurred political upheavals in Tunisia and at least eight other countries.

Needless to say, this situation poses dire implications for Japan, whose rates of self-sufficiency for all major categories of basic foodstuffs except rice have long been a concern. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, when calculated on a caloric basis, all other items except seafood and vegetables are well below 60 percent.

The food equation is further complicated by such wild cards as climate change, world population growth, demand for increasingly scarce water resources and projections for continuing growth in per-capita meat consumption, which is expected to place increasingly higher demands on animal-feed grains.

One of the few encouraging signs is that Japan's trading companies, which since the "Nixon Shocks" of the early 1970s have amassed a wealth of experience juggling between exchange rates and commodity prices and grasping long-term trends. Companies such as Marubeni have also been moving proactively to invest in countries with potential to develop into exporters of agricultural products.

One such country is Mozambique, which along with natural gas and coal resources is said to have 5,500 hectares of potentially arable land and sufficient water. With funding from the African Development Bank, Japan and Brazil, the country's northeast has become the target of an ambitious development project named ProSavana. Since the country stabilized following its civil war, Mozambique's economy has been growing at the rate of 6 to 8 percent annually, and huge investments have been flowing into infrastructural development.

Will the new food producers help Japan realize an additional margin of safety? It's hard to say for certain.

"A major factor that tends to limit imports must be Japanese quality standards, including levels of residual agrochemicals," former Daiwa Securities economist Aaron M. Cohen told The Japan Times. "Exporter nations cannot easily say those standards are barriers to trade, even though in effect they are. Over the medium term, improvement in quality and control over production, as well as export inspection, can facilitate growth of imports."

Cohen added that Japan has little margin to improve the efficiency of mechanization (for example through use of larger farm machinery) or increase the size of farms.

"So there's scant likelihood that a major change in self-sufficiency is possible. Japan has to emphasize good relations with producer countries. Because of transport costs, this favors China over the long run, but Brazil, Canada, Australia and the U.S. of course are good sources of price-competitive imports."

Unfortunately, even the procurement of sufficient supplies is no guarantee they will reach the intended consumers. In a cover story titled "Breakdown in the Japanese Diet," (as in food, not politics), Shukan Toyo Keizai (Sep. 8) notes an estimated 9.1 million Japanese, many of them elderly or handicapped, are living in a "desert" when it comes to obtaining comestibles.

These distribution bottlenecks are happening not only in isolated rural areas but pockets of Tokyo, such as the sprawling Takashimadaira public-housing project in Tokyo's Itabashi Ward.

"The only place where fresh produce can be purchased in the development is the central shopping street just by the station," says Toshiyuki Toda, chairman of a self-governing community body in Takashimadaira's 2nd district. "Elderly people in the most distant units need 30 minutes to walk there from their homes."

While small retail outlets had previously sold produce inside the development, they began shutting down in the 1990s, along with restaurants. "As retirees began living off their pensions, they used the train station less, and it became more troublesome for them to access the busy commercial areas," Toda adds.

For the mostly young, male readers of Weekly Playboy (Sep. 17), however, the main concern is how much more pressure the U.S. drought is going to put on their wallets.

Even the prices of popular walk-away foods like the humble takoyaki (grilled octopus dumplings) have already been boosted. From September, one unnamed chain maintained the same ¥500 price, but dropped the number of dumplings per serving from eight to six. And it appears another salaryman staple, ramen noodles, faces creeping inflation.

"Some ramen customers become infuriated at a ¥100 price rise, so shops try to hold the rise to ¥50 at a time," a food maven named Suganuma tells the magazine. "On the meal-ticket vending machines at one ramen shop, the operator pasted a handwritten notice that reads, 'We've done our utmost, but due to the rise in wheat costs, we're forced to swallow our tears and raise prices.' "



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