【Opinion】 Problem of achieving food security through diversifying imports (Dec. 18, 2017)

[By Yasushi Tange, visiting researcher at Norinchukin Research Institute]

Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate marked 38 percent on a calorie basis in fiscal 2016, down 1 percentage point from a year before, posting a year-on-year drop for the first time in six years. The figure was the second-lowest level ever after 37 percent recorded in fiscal 1993, when the country suffered a serious rice shortage following bad weather.

The self-sufficiency rate, which was 73 percent in fiscal 1965, has been on a declining trend since then.

Some criticize that an obsession with food sufficiency figures may be off the mark, citing such reasons as the fact that fruit and vegetables, although their output value is high, are little reflected in calorie-based calculations, while farm produce cultivated using imported fertilizers are included as homegrown food.

Some people also say that since the nation cannot meet the domestic needs for food only by domestic supply, food security should be achieved through diversifying imports just like in the case of securing energy resources. Some even say the policy of improving food self-sufficiency rate is incompatible with the economics of global trade. Is it really the case?

Limits to diversifying supply sources

It is said that the concepts of food security and food self-sufficiency rate were established following the 1972 world food crisis brought about by the widespread extreme weather. As the world’s rice and wheat production dropped sharply then due to low temperatures in Central Asia and droughts in Southeast Asia, Australia and Africa, the Soviet Union purchased large amount of grains from the United States, which led to a sharp rise in international grain prices. In 1973, the U.S. imposed export controls on soybeans in an effort to prevent food shortages and hold down prices, the move which had a great impact on other countries including Japan.

When food security as a concept originated in the mid-1970s, the initial focus of attention was primarily on food supply problems, and calculations in caloric terms are based on the idea of meeting basic calorie requirements to maintain people’s lives. They are different from the output value-based self-sufficiency rate in the first place.

Energy resources such as crude oil, natural gas and shale gas are mined underground or on the ocean floor and are transported. As for energy resources, diversifying sources of imports would prove effective in the event that supplies are disrupted due to regional conflicts. However, foodstuffs do not just exist somewhere in the world. They are produced every year in different parts of the world to meet the demand. This means there are limits to achieving food security by maintaining diverse sources of food imports.

Interlocking effects of climate change

When Japan suffered the poorest rice harvest in decades in 1993, the nation imported 2.59 million tons of rice on an emergency basis to cope with the shortage of rice. Because countries like the U.S., Australia and China had already signed export contracts with other countries, much of the imports were from Thailand.

At that time, media repeatedly reported on the bad taste of Thai rice. As a matter of fact, however, Thailand was also facing harvest declines due to two consecutive years of low rainfall in the Central Plains, the nation’s major rice production region. Many Thai people reportedly felt sad to hear how Thai rice was received in Japan, saying the rice would have tasted much better if they had rice produced in the rainy season still left to export.

Poor rice harvest in Japan and water shortage in Thailand are related in terms of weather conditions. When atmospheric convection increases in Southeast Asia to bring more rainfall, the Pacific anticyclone in the mid-latitude region strengthens and extends across the Japanese archipelago. On the other hand, when convective activities weaken in Southeast Asia, rainfall in Thailand declines and the Pacific anticyclone moves eastward, bringing cold summer to Japan.

If extreme weather conditions occur on a global scale, there is a risk of food production declining simultaneously worldwide. It is wrong to discuss food security and energy security in the same terms. Needless to say, the ways to cope with them should also be different. We should bear in mind that the issue of food security cannot be resolved only by taking measures that make sense economically.

<Born in 1959, Yasushi Tange became a visiting researcher at Norinchukin Research Institute after serving as the head of Norinchukin Bank’s division in charge of the forestry industry.>

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