Editorial: Pandemic, war demand Japan consider food security, review policies

The spread of the coronavirus and Russia's invasion of Ukraine have caused food prices to soar and hunger to worsen, threatening food security in various countries.

According to Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), in 2020, when the pandemic took hold, 19 countries including Russia and Vietnam temporarily restricted the export of wheat, rice and other goods. It appears they were attempting to wall themselves off from the crisis. Since 2021, the supply of chicken from Thailand and potatoes from North America has also slowed.

It was Russia's invasion of Ukraine that spurred instability in food prices.

When the supply from both of these countries, which together account for 30% of the world's wheat exports, came to a halt, international food prices soared. This prompted India and Indonesia to restrict exports of wheat and palm oil, respectively. In Japan, too, food prices have risen, impacting people's lives.

-- Reinforcement of domestic agriculture an urgent task

Disruptions to the food supply present a serious issue for Japan, as the country has come to reply more on imports amid changing diets, such as a shift away from eating rice.

In the 1960s, the country's food self-sufficiency rate was over 70%, but this has since fallen to the upper 30% range.

Yasufumi Miwa of The Japan Research Institute Ltd. pointed out, "When the risk of a lack of food arises, we can see moves by countries to put themselves first."

It is important to strengthen the domestic agriculture industry. But under current circumstances, Japan has been unable to break away from its conventional policy of protecting rice farmers with subsidies.

While abolishing production adjustment (acreage reduction) for rice as a staple food starting from the 2018 crop, the government is encouraging farmers to switch to feed rice and other such crops by offering subsidies. In effect, this is a measure to maintain the price of rice as a staple, and it has not led to increased competition.

At the same time, some farmers have been seeking new business opportunities overseas.

Hyakusho Ichiba, a company in the eastern Japan prefecture of Ibaraki, has teamed up with local farmers to export rice.

To lower production costs, it is cultivating varieties that have high yields per unit area, and is implementing innovations like sowing seeds with drones. Over the past five years, exports have risen fivefold, and it has expanded to 10 countries, including the United States and Singapore.

In recent years, the government, too, has worked to strengthen exports. The value of agricultural, forestry, marine product and food exports reached 1 trillion yen (about £7.46 billion) in 2021.

The government is looking to boost this to 5 trillion yen (roughly £37 billion) by 2030.

There are also regions that are diversifying their crops. The Akita Prefecture village of Ogata, which is known for its rice, has stepped up production of onions in recent years. This is because the harvest period differs from the main production areas of Hokkaido and Hyogo prefectures, creating added value, and mechanizing the process is also easy.

From the perspective of food security, it is essential for the government to have policies that back positive initiatives like this.

In light of the coronavirus crisis and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a MAFF team is analyzing risks such as price surges and supply reductions.

It is indispensable to share information with agriculture industry workers and create a system to hammer out countermeasures early.

-- Deeper international collaboration

Domestic reviews of agricultural policies alone, however, have their limits. Japan depends on countries overseas not only for wheat and soybeans, but for many of the raw materials for fertilizer. It is important to deepen collaboration with international society with a view to securing stable supplies.

At a World Trade Organization ministerial conference in June, officials agreed to refrain from export restrictions in the absence of rules.

When restrictions are unavoidable, the organization requests that the impact on the importing country be taken into consideration, and that information be shared.

The Group of Seven major industrial nations including Japan, the United States, Canada and those in Europe, released a statement including avoiding unfair trade restrictions. Countries are urged to make efforts that avoid damaging free trade.

It is the people in developing countries, where the local infrastructure is fragile, who are most severely affected. According to the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP), the number of people whose lives are threatened by starvation and other problems has risen 25% from the beginning of the year to reach some 345 million in 82 countries.

The WFP has requested assistance from countries across the world in collaboration with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other organizations.

Developed countries including Japan have a great responsibility.

Various factors threaten food security. Emerging countries have achieved remarkable economic growth, and demand for food has surged accordingly. Meanwhile, the spread of biofuels made from corn and other plants has heightens food shortage concerns, and there has been a succession of poor crops, believed to be an effect of climate change.

Making sure that food is distributed across the world is essential in building a stable world order and peaceful societies.

It is essential to take a square look at the risks that have surfaced in connection with COVID-19 and war, and inspect current policies.

We must then build international food security that is not limited to the framework of our own countries.