Feeding Japan in Crisis

World’s Largest Food Importer Will Need Help

Japan’s devastating and ongoing humanitarian crisis will require the United States and other nations to ensure Japan’s food security needs are met during this critical period. Facing ruined rice fields along its northeast coast and crippled grain storage infrastructure, as well as the potential threat of radiation spreading to croplands across the country, basic necessities such as food and water are needed immediately. But more sweeping food and agricultural assistance will be needed in the medium-term for Japan, the world’s largest importer of food.

Under normal circumstances, Japan already has difficulty meeting the food calorie requirements of the Japanese people through its own domestic agricultural production. Even before the multiple disasters of earthquake, tsunami, and an escalating nuclear crisis befell the country, Japan was the world’s largest importer of corn, the third-largest importer of soybeans, and relies on imports for 86 percent of its wheat supplies. According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Japan is only 39 percent food self-sufficient—compared to the United States at 145 percent, or France at 127 percent.

Japan is also a wealthy country, boasting the third-largest economy in the world, and is capable of purchasing the food it needs. Problem is, soaring worldwide food prices are likely to rise further once Japan emerges from its multiple crises. That’s why U.S. and global action to assist Japan with priority emergency food and water needs, agricultural investment, and open markets for basic foodstuffs—some countries are placing limits and hoarding food exports due to rising demand and prices—is needed now. Preliminary indications are that the devastating earthquake and tsunami have had a minimal impact on the majority of Japan’s major bulk grain carrier shipping ports located in the south and central regions of Japan. Nonetheless, Japan has suffered severe damage to its northeastern rice growing areas, and rice remains an important food staple. The Sendai region where the multiple crises hit also experienced widespread destruction of grain warehouses and smaller scale animal feed manufacturing facilities.

Then there are the multiple failures at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant, which have led to several explosions and a significant and ongoing radiation leak. The severity of the impact of radiation exposure on Japanese food, dairy, and water supplies appears to be minimal—at the moment—but widespread contamination remains a possibility.

Here’s what needs to happen immediately. The United States and other nations must ensure Japan’s urgent food and water needs are met. “People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming,” noted Hajime Sato, a government official in devastated Iwate prefecture. The United States has responded rapidly with supplies, technical assistance, and urban search and rescue teams from the U.S. International Agency for International Development, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy, and the deployment of the USS Ronald Reagan Strike Group and another aircraft carrier to the region. Indeed, U.S. Marine units delivered their first loads of bottled water today.

Under the guidance and coordinating leadership of the Japanese people and government, the United States should stand prepared to facilitate cash transfers, purchases, and transport of immediate food and water supplies to the most vulnerable regions of Japan. The United States should then lend financial and technical assistance to invest in major food-related infrastructure in Japan, including repairing and rebuilding damaged grain storage facilities, feed manufacturing operations, and shipping ports to ensure critical grain shipments remain uninterrupted.

After the initial food-and-water needs are met, the United States and other nations need to act to address global food-price volatility. Today’s global food system has little excess capacity due to tight supplies and increased demand. As a net food importer, Japan is particularly vulnerable to any external shocks in agricultural markets.

A short interruption of food supplies, or a spike in global prices, can lead to price inflation and fewer food purchases by Japanese consumers, which is what will likely happen in the coming months during Japan’s critical recovery and rebuilding phase. But that will be temporary. As a leading, wealthy developed country, Japan is more resilient to price shocks than many developing countries, but it can moderate the impact of global food price instability by striving to become more food self-sufficient.

According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Japan ranks 12th out of 12 developed countries in food self-sufficiency. As incomes rose in the post-WWII economic growth era, Japan’s meat consumption increased, and its rice consumption fell. On average, the Japanese eat almost half the amount of rice per capita today as they did in 1960. As a result, Japan has become more dependent on imports, particularly grain for livestock feed.

Other factors, including an aging population, fewer farmers, and low birth rate have all contributed to Japan’s lack of food self-sufficiency. In 2009, four percent of the population was involved in agriculture, and agriculture was responsible for just one percent of Japan’s gross domestic product, its economy’s total output.

Given the extent of the current crisis, Japan at the appropriate time should embark on a dedicated program to re-invest in agricultural production within its own borders. Japan will need to import grains and meat products, but a modest increase to 45 percent food self-sufficiency could be an achievable goal. As part of the recovery and reconstruction effort, Japan has an opportunity to reform many of the structural issues in its agricultural sector and invest in agricultural production that increases food production yields, conserves water and soil quality, and lessens dependence on high-cost fossil fuels.

But more immediately, global food prices in recent months have experienced sudden increases due, in part, to misguided government export bans on such key crops as wheat and rice by food-exporting countries. Bans on exports increase the vulnerability of food importing countries and encourage hoarding of grain stocks.

In order to prevent food price spikes and the political and economic instability that often accompanies these government actions, both the trade restrictions on agricultural imports and exports must be phased out. The immediate priority must be on meeting Japan’s emergency food and water needs, but in the longer term in order to counter the effects of food price instability and uncertainty, the United States and Japan must invest and work together to boost agricultural production, improve food distribution infrastructure, and open global markets to increased trade in agricultural products.

Jake Caldwell is Director of Policy for Agriculture, Trade and Energy at the Center for American Progress.