My most recent article on Japan’s food self-sufficiency is up here.

Despite the relatively positive tone of the article insisted upon by The Powers That Be at the paper, I was distinctly unimpressed with officials at both Food Action Nippon (FAN) and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) when I interviewed them. I understand that there are no easy answers when one is faced with a catastrophe as great as the March 11 earthquake and the subsequent nuclear disaster. With Japan’s food self-sufficiency in dire straits- hovering awkwardly at 39% again after two years at a no less dangerous 40%- and irradiated food on supermarket shelves, the situation is not looking good.

But I felt that the agricultural ministry’s response was wildly optimistic at best, and disgustingly ineffectual at worst. The only campaign that FAN have launched since the earthquake encouraged consumers to buy produce from Tohoku, in order to support farmers hit by the tsunami. Yet vegetables, fish and meat contaminated with either radioactive iodine or cesium has been discovered in most of the six prefectures in Tohoku, including Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, and Yamagata, rendering the campaign somewhat irresponsible.

It might have been acceptable to claim that radiation levels in the foodstuffs promoted by the campaign were within safe limits, had beef with levels of radioactive cesium far beyond the limit not been shipped to 42 prefectures only last month. It also may be correct to say that some parts of Tohoku were affected by the tsunami but not by radiation (such as Aomori), but I am certain that the campaign covers all of Tohoku’s produce. Had that beef not ‘slipped through the net’, perhaps consumers could be more confident buying food produced in those six prefectures.

As it is, I think that self-sufficiency is likely to slip below 38% in fiscal 2011. The government has had to buy up beef from 3,500 cattle that have potentially been fed cesium-contaminated hay, and is to import an extra 2,000 tons of butter from Australia to make up the shortfall since the earthquake.

That the rate of food self-sufficiency had already slipped in 2010 shows that FAN’s efforts to get Japanese people eating a “traditional” rice-based diet are not making much headway.

It was noted in The Japan Times that the introduction of “best before” dates in 1995 were responsible for Japan overtaking the United States as the world’s most wasteful country, since people started to throw out perfectly good food. FAN told me that their plan to reduce waste was to praise children who didn’t take more than they needed at hotel buffets. Any effect of that will be negligible compared to the tons of food thrown away by convenience stores after freshly packed bentos, salads and bread flies past its sell-by date in a matter of hours.

I have many problems with the idea of returning Japanese people to a rice-based diet. Firstly, I believe it is unrealistic. Not only would you have to wrestle pasta and bread from most people’s cold, dead hands- you’d be surprised at how much people eat here if you’ve never witnessed it- you’d also have to convince working mothers to stop feeding their children convenient meals of toast and sandwiches, and to start making dozens of side-dishes to serve alongside rice. It’s a wholesome but time-consuming activity that few but the jobless have time for. In fact, witnessing my host mother in Fukuoka get up at 4am to make three bento boxes, breakfast for everyone, go to work and then go grocery shopping before coming home to cook dinner, I realised it’s somewhat akin to 30 hours of community service, every week.

But while taste and convenience are factors, changing eating habits are less than half the story. FAN focus almost exclusively on consumers, but Japan’s agricultural industry is looking pretty bleak as well. Statistics from MAFF are revealing: there are now only 2.6m farmers in Japan, in comparison to 14.5m in 1960. Their average age is 65.8. New farmers numbered 67000 in fiscal 2009, with 15,000 of them under 39 years old. That’s pitifully low for a country of 128m people.

Production of just about every type of food has fallen. Below is a chart of the  current annual production figures compared to their peak:

NOW             THEN (YEAR)

Pork ( X head of pigs)           9,899,000        11,866,000 (1989)

Beef (X head of cattle)          2,892,000        2,971,000 (1994)

Chicken (for meat)               107,141,000     155,788,000 (1986)

Chicken (for eggs)               178,208,000     188,704,000 (1993)

Another factor for the fall in production is that exporting countries such as China are able to undercut domestic prices. It’s notable that domestically grown food, while only accounting for 39% of the calories an individual consumes, accounts for 70% of the money they spend on food. Although you could argue that people tend to buy domestic vegetables (low calorie) and sugary, fatty imported food  (high calorie), it also points out how much more expensive domestic food is compared to imported. For example, it’s not unusual to see one bulb of garlic being sold for 200 yen, while three bulbs of Chinese-grown garlic is 100 yen.

Moreover, it seems that production of rice fell not in response to reduced consumption, but as a result of a reduced agricultural workforce. This essay by Eiji Oguma points out that a large amount of agricultural labor is done by family members, who perform it as a domestic duty rather than in exchange for a wage. If it was calculated, their hourly wage would be “barely above the legal minimum wage of several hundred yen per hour”. Once these farming wives age and retire, and the sons are still installed in office jobs in urban centres such as Tokyo, the entire agricultural industry will likely collapse.

Unfortunately, despite the best hopes of robotics professors, mechanized farming cannot currently replace the expertise and judgment of experienced human farmers. One solution would be to accept Asian immigrants who are willing to till the land. Yet due to a stagnant belief that only Japanese people really know how to grow japonica rice and other indigenous crops, that won’t happen any time soon.

My belief that a diet based on grains is not an optimal diet (no matter what the government tells you) warrants an a whole other entry, but suffice it to say that anyone eating 1000 calories worth of rice a day is doing it out of need, not out of preference. FAN officials admitted it would be near impossible to get Japanese people eating that much now, when they have ample meat, vegetables, cheese, milk etc at their disposal.

That said, I do agree that a traditional Japanese diet, comprised of small portions of fish, vegetables, beans, and fermented foods, is healthier than the high-sugar, high-vegetable-oil composite that a lot of people eat today. Convincing people to take the time to cook and eat the former, however, will take a lot more than a government-sponsored campaign.