Saturday, December 08, 2007

News roundup 2: infirm farms

The recent elections here in Japan led to a change in the balance of power in the upper house, from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The DPJ benefitted partly from a swing in farming areas against the farmers' traditional ally, the LDP, and the first response of the newly-changed upper house was to pass a law passing pork-barrelling funds to rural areas. This law will likely be rejected in the lower house, but it displays the importance of farmers to the electoral process here.

Which is interesting, because farmers only constitute a tiny minority of the population, and Japan's calorific food self sufficiency has dropped from 78% after the war to 35% (compared with Australia, on a regular self sufficiency of about 250%). The average size of a Japanese farm is 1.2 hectares, compared with 3700 in Australia. There is a lot of resistance in Japan to improving farming efficiency, resistance which has been aided and abetted by pork-barelling political parties for many years. As a consequence farmers have become older (nearly 60% of farmers are aged over 65) and farms smaller, with many farmers also working part-time outside their main company job.

Because the farmers are propped up by subsidies, and many have shifted to part-time work, they have little incentive to make their farm work more efficient, or to leave the land and sell to a more committed farmer (or a company). Many have discovered that they can earn much more money by selling to development companies than to other farmers, so they are sitting on their land, using it unproductively, while they wait for a development company to make an offer. Of course, the main way to improve efficiency in modern farms is to enlarge them, but land reform is not possible while farmers are unwilling to sell to other farmers. The current DPJ pork-barrel proposal offers money to these part-time farmers to continue farming, essentially ensuring they are subsidized while waiting to sell on to a developer.

Obviously because Japan has such a huge manufacturing economy, it is easy for governments to look the other way from farming reform. No amount of improvements in farming efficiency will ever make Japanese farms relevant to the economy, which is after all still the world's largest exporter of high-tech products. But there is something creepy in the eyes of many people to be living in a country which cannot support its own population at a basic subsistence level (interestingly, Britain is in a similar though not so serious position). The best way to improve this situation is to liberalise and economise farming practices, but there is no incentive when farmers are an easy voting bloc and the impact on the economy will be zero. Particularly in an era of deflation, when food prices are stable anyway. Liberalising and economising farming practices also always means short term pain for some farmers, who have to sell up and piss off. Why should a rich country bother?

I have mixed feelings about this because liberalising farming here essentially means destroying the system of traditional farming which makes the Japanese countryside both so tight-knit and peaceful, and so quintessentially Japanese. Replacing smallholders with big combines, replacing hand-picked rice paddies with massive machine-intensive rice factories, and removing the small mountainside paddocks we now see, would completely change the look and feel of rural Japan, which I really appreciate now that I live here. I also wonder if it would have positive environmental effects. In addition to the usual problems of industrial-scale farming - in a country with a generally very clean and pure rural environment - Japan has a tradition of "satoyama", small forested mountains and hills scattered through the landscape. These satoyama are not only a crucial part of the image of the Japanese countryside - they contain much of the biodiversity and forest which stabilises the Japanese environment. As farm sizes shrink and farmers retire these satoyama are going untended, reducing their environmental benefits and (strangely) affecting how much of Japan's extensive forests can be counted in the Kyoto agreement. I wonder if industrialising farming would hasten this decline or slow it down, but I rather suspect the former.

Some farmers have maybe seen this problem coming, and are starting to do what South Australian farmers did years ago, rejigging their farming practices to produce luxury goods for export. Economically this is a good idea, but in terms of protecting Japan's food self-sufficiency it is probably counter-productive. I suppose Japan has to ask itself whether it wants to change its rural economy in order to protect itself against the collapse of foreign food markets (which is what self-sufficiency is really all about) or if it wants to see a permanent decline in its farming sector, in order to protect existing rural communities. I suspect this latter decision will never work, because rural communities are always ruined by all their young people leaving (as we saw in, for example, Inomecho, when we visited with our friends last year). But the decision to industrialise could be just as devastating. I suppose this leaves only one option, the option taken by the Scottish and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand: tourism...

... for which I am doing my bit, hosting visitors to rural Japan as often as I can. And they say foreign residents can't be patriotic!


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