Food Safety and (Agricultural) Trade

Food safety is ‘a realm of negotiation between processors, governments, the general public, producers and others who have many goals they wish to optimize or maximize in addition to food safety itself ’.[1] Therefore, food safety is the result of social negotiations and constructions. In Japan, many stakeholders are involved in the negotiations of what safe food is and Japanese consumers have been concerned about food safety issues since the 1960s.[2] Safe food at this time basically meant the use of few pesticides or none at all.[3] Since the 1980s, the discourse on food safety in Japan has been strongly connected with trade and foreign pressure (gaiatsu).[4] In 1989, farmers protesting against US demands for rice liberalization used slogans similar to those of the anti-TPP protests today, to demand the protection of food safety and to address the problem of food security and rural livelihoods.[5] In a similar manner, the movement against the liberalization of food additives in the 1970s and 1980s argued that this would be a ‘threat to the health of Japanese consumers’, a ‘jeopardy to the future of Japanese agriculture’ and an ‘American occupation of Japanese stomachs’.[6] [7]

A comparable rhetoric was part of the protest against the partial liberalization of the rice market in 1993. The opponents of rice importation referred to the risks emanating from foreign rice that ‘contained chemicals from insecticides and from the processing’. 1 Although gaiatsu from the USA was perceived as a threat to domestic food safety and Japan’s (food) sovereignty, Ohnuki-Thierney states that gaiatsu was also a ‘welcome catalyst for internal changes’.[8] Similar contradictions can be found within the discourse on the TPP today because, for example, not all farmers oppose the TPP. In fact, some see it as a chance to change the entrenched structures of state support for farmers.[9] In the late 1990s and early 2000s, genetically modified organisms (GMO) became another important food safety concern that was closely related to increasing food imports.[10] In 2004, a few hundred Japanese consumers from the NO! GMO campaign went to Canada and the USA to deliver a petition against GM wheat, signed by 414 organizations representing 1.2 million Japanese people. Two months later, Monsanto announced the suspension of all development of GM wheat.[11] The movement achieved mandatory labelling of GM foods in Japan.

Against the backdrop of partial agricultural trade liberalizations from the early 1990s, it is also not very surprising that in the 1990s, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) began promoting the preservation of Japan’s food self-sufficiency. MAFF claimed that this was necessary in order to ensure a stable supply of food at stable prices whilst maintaining food safety. Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate has decreased steadily from 73% (based on calories) in 1965 to 40% in 1998. Since then, it has stabilized at approximately 40% on average (MAFF 2011), which, compared to other (developed) countries, is very low.[12] Before 2000, due to agricultural protectionism and high food prices, the interests of farmers and consumers were perceived as conflicting. Politically, the discursive combination of producers’ and consumers’ interests became necessary in order to justify MAFF’s rejection of agricultural trade liberalization. Due to the lack of competition in the food market caused by this rejection, food prices in Japan remained high.[13] Consequently, consumers had to believe that domestic products were safer than imported foods to justify the high prices for domestic food produce. According to a study by Naoi and Kume,[14] the reason for the acceptance of agricultural protectionism is consumers’ solidarity with Japan’s farmers. Since 2000, however, Japanese consumers have been faced with successive food scandals, many of which have involved Japanese producers. The mass media, nevertheless, mostly focused on food scandals involving imported foods.[15] Subsequently, imported food has been considered dangerous, although more than half of the food that Japanese consumers buy and eat today is imported. Overall, due to the discursive conjunction of food risks and food imports for several decades, imported foods are considered more dangerous in Japan than domestically produced foods (kokusan).[16]

  • [1] Busch, ‘Grades and Standards’, 177.
  • [2] Naikakufu, Kokumin Seikatsu.
  • [3] Jussaume et al., ‘Food Safety’.
  • [4] Maclachlan, Consumer Politics, 188.
  • [5] Davis, Food Fights over Free Trade.
  • [6] Maclachlan, Consumer Politics, 191.
  • [7] Ohnuki-Thierney, ‘Structure, Event and Historical Metaphor’, 236.
  • [8] Ibid., 246.
  • [9] Interview with farmer Takamura Michihiko, Oita, 2013.
  • [10] Yamaguchi and Suda, ‘Changing Social Order’.
  • [11] Chan, ‘Another Japan Is Possible’, 136.
  • [12] MAFF, Heisei 22 nendo shokuryd jikyuritsu wo meguru jijo.
  • [13] George Mulgan, Japan’s Interventionist State.
  • [14] Naoi and Kume, ‘Explaining Mass Support for Agricultural Protectionism’.
  • [15] Kawagishi, Shoku no anzen wa doku made shinyo dekiru no ka?, 17.
  • [16] Reiher, ‘Japanische Lebensmittel sind die sichersten der Welt’.
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