Japan’s Potential for Self-Sufficiency

In this blog CLA Senior Policy Adviser Jonathan Baker reveals insight he has gained into Japan's land use policy as part of his Nuffield Scholarship study tour.

On 11 March 2011, triggered by earthquake off of the country’s eastern coast, a tsunami 38 metres high hit Japan. As many as 15,000 lives were lost and famously the damage to Fukishima nuclear power plant threatened Japan's energy security. 

Less well known is the tsunami's impact on Japanese food security. Waves crashed inland and damaged more than 21,000ha of Japan's precious farmland (68% of Japan is hilly forest, while just 14% is farmland). The financial impact on the sector was estimated to be in the billions and seven years later 45% of the affected farms remain unused.

Japan is the world's biggest importer of food and its 127 million increasingly urban inhabitants pull food in from all over the world. This, combined with unpredictable geology, geo-politics and its island geography mean that Japanese policy makers prioritise food security – a topic regularly raised, but mostly marginalised in UK debates about agricultural policy.

‘Securing a stable food supply' is the first article in the relevant Basic Law and agricultural strategies back to the 1990s have set targets for self-sufficiency. All of which have been missed.

Japan's current calorific self-sufficiency is about 39%. Back in 2000 the target was 45%. As in the UK, Japanese agricultural economists dismiss self-sufficiency as a yardstick for farming policy as they point out, in 1946 self-sufficiency was 100%, but people were dying of hunger.

Japan has probably thought longer and harder about food security than any other country. They have annual registers of risks to food availability, a system of food stockpiles and a regularly updated 'emergency food security plan'. They have also responded to constantly missing their self-sufficiency targets by creating a new, more meaningful measure of self-sufficiency: 'self-sufficiency potential'.

This is an assessment of the potential for Japanese agriculture to feed itself if needed. It is based on total consumption, compared to the amount and condition of farmland, farmers and relevant infrastructure. This change in emphasis ties in well to other parts of Japanese agricultural policy, which are seeking to manage the structural changes which saw 900,000 fewer farmers between 2005 and 2015.

Stewart Brand, director of the Long Now Foundation, says long term thinking means leaving as many options open to you as possible. Setting policies to maintain or improve self-sufficiency potential would seem to be a good way of bringing long term thinking into our future agricultural policy.

The context and characteristics of Japanese agriculture are fundamentally different to the UK, but at a time when many are looking to shift the focus of UK agricultural policy, maybe the concept of 'self-sufficiency potential' is something we should translate.

Jonathan Baker is a Senior Policy Adviser at the CLA. He is a Nuffield Scholar and is currently studying agricultural practice around the world as part of his studies.

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