Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has entered its second year of agricultural policy reform. Its focus will be reviewing policies on rice farming and reforming agricultural co-operatives. Farming is a business which takes a long time to collect revenues after making investments, and the government’s misruling could lead to business failures. It is necessary to go back to the regular course of agricultural policy reform, which is to verify policy measures and the actual situation of farmers and move step by step by obtaining their consensus.
In making its policies, the Abe administration has continuously been rushing to conclusion, based on proposals from policy advisory panels made up mainly of people from business circles. The policy measures are sprinkled with slogans which would appeal to the public, and discussions take place ignoring the realities of farmers.
“It is not too much to say that the current critical situation of the nation’s agriculture is brought about by the supervision of the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives (JA-Zenchu),” said one member of the agriculture working group under the government’s Regulatory Reform Council at the group’s meeting last November. After the meeting, the group released a draft proposal for agricultural co-operative reform, including taking away the legal authority of central and prefectural agricultural co-operative unions under the Agricultural Co-operative Society Law. However, the group does not seem to have verified the reasons why the agricultural sector has gotten into a critical state. Last May, the group called for the abolishment of central and prefectural unions’ supervision over primary JAs, stating that the system prevents primary JAs from being autonomous, but without clear grounds.
In October 2013, when the council proposed abolishing the government’s system of adjusting rice production, it explained that the system is “significantly inhibiting” free decision making of farmers in running their business, but no evidence of attempts to establish its validity could be seen. The council’s argument is not necessarily true, considering that more than 90 percent of farmers in Ogata, Niigata Prefecture, the area known for large-scale farming and respect for free business management, participate in rice production adjustment.
Abe has repeatedly stressed in the Diet that he will conduct drastic agricultural co-operative reform, the first one in 60 years, and abolish the so-called “gentan” policy of setting targets to reduce rice production. Some media reports say that he is trying to make agricultural policy reform the touchstone of regulatory reform. This is “slogan politics,” in which a political leader uses catchy phrases to make the public think his policy is good for them without having doubts. This is a critical situation for democracy.
Past major policy reforms related to rice production, such as the shift to “a rice production adjustment system led by farmers and farmers’ organizations” and measures to stabilize business of large-scale, ambitious farmers, are compiled by an experts’ panel under the agriculture ministry in 2002 after holding 46 meetings in a year to discuss policies and their effectiveness in detail. Before actually introducing the new system for crops grown in 2007, experts again studied whether the policy will work. Even so, the crops in 2007 ended up with excessive yield and rice prices plummeted. In the Upper House election held the same year, the Liberal Democratic Party suffered defeat even in rural areas, and eventually lost power in the Lower House election in 2009. There were gaps between government policies and the actual situation of rice farmers, mainly small-scale and aged, and the party failed to gain sufficient support.
In its campaign platform for the Lower House election held late last year, the LDP pledged to “deepen discussion” on agricultural co-operative reform. The LDP must listen carefully to farmers’ voices either directly or through its lawmakers and create policies which convince farmers to think that the measures will lead to the goals of improving their income and revitalizing regional areas and to support them. In order to come up with such policies, they should focus on the JA group’s self-reform plan, because it is compiled for the same goals based on discussions which reflect farmers’ voices.
(Jan. 7, 2015)