Food Security

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization states that ‘food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’.[1] Food security is generally a concept used with reference to the developing, rather than the developed world. However, with increased trade in agricultural goods, cross-border food safety scandals, and price volatility resulting from increasing energy prices, biofuels, and climate change, ensuring food security is also a vital issue to developed states, especially ones as dependent on imports as Japan. In terms of the developing world, agricultural liberalization is often framed as a moral imperative; not only due to economic efficiencies but also due to the negative impact protectionism has on less developed countries. However, the reality of agricultural trade liberalization economics is rather more complicated. The elimination of all agricultural trade barriers could result in increased global food prices. Tariffs keep demand down, thus reducing prices. Subsidies increase supply, thus reducing prices. Simply put, agricultural liberalization could benefit net-export developed states more than less developed states. Thus, although the situation varies from country to country, it has been argued that liberalization would actually hurt many less developed states.[2] Looking specifically at Japan, the situation is complicated. On the one hand, the reduction in protection would free up resources for other uses and prices of some products - those with high tariff barriers such as the sacred five - would decrease, in the long-run food prices more generally could actually increase because of the conditions outlined above.

We have seen that Japan’s agricultural policies have left the country highly dependent on food imports both in terms of variety of produce and overall calorie intake, with one major exception: rice. Opinions vary on the impact of the TPP on Japan’s rice production. George Mulganargues that liberalization would result in the structural adjustment of the farm sector, resulting in a ‘more internationally competitive, innovative and efficient agricultural industry’.[3] Rather than devastating the farm sector, she argues that farmers would adapt to change by ‘catering to niche agricultural markets, producing value-added products, and expanding farm exports’.[4] This may well be true, and even if it is, it does not address the issue of what liberalization would do to the quantity of domestic production - though it should be noted again that under current policies a large quantity of domestic production is set aside as feed and gentan leads to fallow paddies in order to maintain high prices.

Some pro-liberalization studies do address this issue. For example, Tanaka and Hosoe discount the effects on domestic production.[5] Through various simulations based on the abolishment of protectionist measures combined with productivity shocks at home and abroad, they come to the conclusion that although liberalization would increase exposure to international price volatility, this would not cause any major shocks to domestic prices in Japan. These positive simulations are predicated on the projected future export states, the USA, Thailand, and Australia (all part of the TPP), not implementing export restrictions on rice in times of shortages and increased prices (when they do, the simulations produce a far more negative outcome). They do acknowledge, however, that imported rice would come to occupy a large proportion of Japanese consumption and that domestic production would inevitably decline. However, given that most of their simulations do not foresee major vulnerability to price shocks, and that three of the four key sources of imports (Thailand, the USA, and Australia, but not China) are unlikely to restrict exports, they conclude that Japan’s national food security would be better served by imports than by domestic production.

On the one hand, this acknowledges the inevitable decline of rural rice-producing regions in the event of liberalization, with all the negative social impacts outlined above. Indeed, a recent study specifically on the impact of the TPP on Japanese rice production found that within 5 years annual rice imports from the USA and Vietnam would constitute 3 million and 1 million tonnes, respectively, half Japan’s annual consumption. According to the study, small and medium farmers would be dramatically affected. On the other hand, the argument that Australia, the USA, and Thailand would not implement rice export restrictions holds water. As they point out, Thailand has promised never to restrict rice exports. Such promises ought to be taken with a grain of salt (or rice), but in Thailand’s case it is a matter of selfinterest: Thailand is the world’s largest rice exporter and their commitment is important for their credibility as a trading partner. Still, it is worth noting at this point that Thailand and China are developing closer ties while Thailand-US relations are drifting. Joining the TPP will bring the US-Japan relationship, already the world’s oldest military alliance, ever closer, and thus the US commitment to selling rice to Japan is credible. Meanwhile, Japan and Australia are developing closer diplomatic and military ties, and similarly it would be in Australia’s interest to maintain this relationship also through trade credibility.

From all this, rice import dependency for Japan seems a safe bet. However, from 2006 to 2008 international rice prices tripled as part of soaring global grain prices. This led to key Asian grain exporters implementing export restrictions.[6] A large number of factors have been cited as causing this spike, including increasing oil prices, crop diversion to biofuels, droughts, and export restrictions. Export restrictions were more a product than a cause of the crisis, but nevertheless it is the case that

Vietnam, the world’s second largest exporter, banned rice exports during the crisis, as did India and a number of much smaller exporters.[7] Domestic rice prices in Japan were not significantly affected due to the fact that Japan was already self-sufficient in rice production, domestic prices were already high, and retailers absorbed the costs of the increase rather than risk driving away customers.[8] Nevertheless, the fact remains that, despite Tanaka and Hoseo’s optimistic analysis, ending Japan’s rice self-sufficiency would expose Japanese consumers to future price fluctuations. The international market in rice is the smallest of the major grains, as most production is consumed domestically.

Significantly, rice is also the most protected major grain in the world: states such as Japan and South Korea have historically been very careful to maintain domestic production and avoid reliance on imports. Given increasing global energy demands, climate change, and geopolitical volatility, increasing dependence on grain imports - and specifically on a crucial crop such as rice - would be a ‘brave’ decision, particularly given both its deep symbolic status in Japan and its daily importance as the primary source of calories. Indeed, it is perhaps no surprise that South Korea, which protects domestic rice production and has achieved rice self-sufficiency, removed rice from the negotiating table in its FTA with the USA and is not signing up (yet at least) to the TPP. Beyond rice, as was mentioned earlier, China has come to occupy an increasingly large share of the market, especially in fresh and frozen vegetables and processed food. This state of affairs has become increasingly controversial as Sino-Japanese relations have frozen and as mutual antipathy has increased at both a citizen and elite level. China has used informal export embargoes as a diplomatic weapon against Japan in the recent past, and with the future of bilateral relations looking bleak, informal food export restrictions are hardly inconceivable. Moreover, a spate of domestic scandals in China has led to highly negative perceptions of Chinese food safety. This is despite the very different Chinese production systems for domestic and export-to-Japan foodstuffs, as well as the fact that, according to Japanese Customs data, other states, notably the USA, actually have equally high rates of health and safety violations as China (see also Walravens in this volume). China’s absence from the TPP means that the USA is likely to become, or perhaps regain, its position as Japan’s number one source of food imports.

  • [1] Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, ‘Trade Reforms’, 29.
  • [2] Tokarick, ‘Dispelling Some Misconceptions’.
  • [3] George Mulgan, ‘Japanese Agricultural Reform’.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Tanaka and Hosoe, ‘Does Agricultural Trade Liberalization Increase Risks’.
  • [6] Headey, ‘Rethinking the Global Food Crisis’.
  • [7] Ito, ‘Japan’s Rice Policy’.
  • [8] Ibid.
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