Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Japanese agriculture

Still no end in sight at work. I've spent far too much trying to track down a subtle bug that seems to appear only when I run batch - not individual - simulations on the remote cluster. So instead of wasting time here, jump over to "Twisting Flowers" who has a nice summary post about the state of Japanese agriculture.

In short, the agricultural sector is protected by far more, and far higher tariffs than elsewhere. Farming is completely dominated by elderly farmers - at or above pension age - with very few young people coming into the profession, and almost none who aren't born into a farming family already. The total number of farmers in Japan is about 2% of the population.

Not mentioned there, but I have read elsewhere that about 10% of those counting as farmers never actually farm anything; they have a plot of land (often inherited I guess) and membership in the agricultural association. Sizeable amounts of land lie fallow due to these ghost farmers, and due to a lack of people willing and able to work it.

So when you hear that Japan declines a free trade agreement that would greatly help its industrial (13% of the population) and service sectors (65% of the population) out of consideration for the farmers, realize that they are protecting 2% of the population, the majority of whom are already eligible for a pension anyhow. Also, the agricultural industry has modernized so production cost of staple foods like rice is no longer much higher than elsewhere. Open markets would not destroy farming, though it would forced to modernize and consolidate. But then, as the number of farmers keep dropping this is what's happening already.

And in case you wonder why political parties keep favouring the old and the few over the young and the many, all you need to do is look at voting power disparity. Small, rural districts have several times the voting power of large urban areas. That old farmer really is worth four or five Tokyo company workers, as far as political power is concerned. The courts have declared it illegal several times, but the parties keep ignoring it and the courts are powerless to impose any kind of sanctions.

Eventually, of course, the problem will disappear along with the farmers. As old farmers die out and rural areas depopulate they will eventually no longer wield enough voting clout to dictate terms for the rest of the country. The question is how much damage will be done before this happens.

2 comments:

Martin F said...

Hmm, mja, but 13% of the population building cars are not going to feed the country. 2% are trying to feed 40-50% (and a lot more people are doing home gardening). Why not help young people enter the farm and food sector before talking about "open" markets?

I'm interested in the 65% figure for the service sectors, is that really relevant to international trade? Are you talking about the banking sector?

This is a country that is totally dependent on imported oil and most of its gas, and uranium too. What is abundant here is water/rain and regions that are incredible fertile, if the satoyama landscapes with forests, rivers, and farms can be sustained.

From where I am coming, Japan needs to increase its food self sufficiency, and not engage in further trade deals until there is a very solid understanding of how this nation intends to feed itself...

Janne Morén said...

Martin, the problem is that the current system is utterly failing at providing self-sufficiency or making it attractive for younger people to pick up the trade. If we were talking about replacing a successful system there'd be some merit to argue against change, but we aren't.

The system as set up now is effectively good at three things: To keep the appearance of old-style small-scale farming; to keep prices high; and to funnel funds and influence to the agricultural associations and the political organizations in the farming areas.

But it is failing the farmers, it is failing the consumers and it is failing the country as a whole.

Old-style farming sounds quaint and praiseworthy. We all like open-air history museums (a'la Skansen in Stockholm) of course. But the only way to keep it is to regulate the whole industry - what to plant, how much to plant, who to sell to, at what price - to the point where you no longer have a choice but to keep doing it the old way. And ask yourself: how many people do you think would like to spend their entire career as an extra in an open-air culture display? As current stats show, not many.

A few years ago Japan had a bumper crop of Daikon. The result was that a large part of the crop was plowed stright into the ground again, wasted, in order to keep consumer prices high. While Japan imports a lot of wheat and other grains, there are farmers that are growing rice that will never be eaten, and is not meant to be. It is grown only to be stored in a warehouse to rot before it is thrown away. Peoples eating habits have changed, but not the farming practices. Now, how exactly does throwing good produce away and growing things to rot help the food sufficiency rate? And again, what does this system do for the motivation of possible future farmers?

The current system is inefficient, wasteful and actively hostile towards any change, innovation or diversity. It throws away food and keeps farmland fallow even while food is imported at exorbitant cost. Of course, there are people benefitting hugely from this, and they have every reason to delay and disrupt any change as long as possible. Meanwhile the people whose interest should really be the focus - the farmers and the consumers - are getting cheated, shortchanged and stuck with the bill.

Japan can basically choose to either treat farming as a combination cultural display and political power base or treat it as a rational industry. That is not to say I'm advocating a free-for-all, but there is a whole lot of realistic room between some neoliberal wet dream and the current dysfunctional mess.