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Government initiatives to support a sustainable agricultural industry in Japan

Last modified March 03, 2008 13:44

Agriculture has deep roots in the culture and traditions of Japan, and relatively recent in its history was essentially food self-sufficient. And yet, today this country depends on imports for most of its food. Rural communities are losing their populations to the draw of the cities, and intensive farming techniques of the past few decades have depleted farm soil. And yet there are some bright lights on the horizon, as Japanese farmers and consumers are starting to feel the pull of sustainable agriculture, organic farming, and organic food. The government too is putting its weight into environmentally-friendly agriculture. Read on for the latest news in this important field in Japan.

By JAPAN FOR SUSTAINABILITY

 

Agriculture has deep roots in the culture and traditions of Japan, and relatively recent in its history was essentially food self-sufficient. And yet, today this country depends on imports for most of its food. Rural communities are losing their populations to the draw of the cities, and intensive farming techniques of the past few decades have depleted farm soil. And yet there are some bright lights on the horizon, as Japanese farmers and consumers are starting to feel the pull of sustainable agriculture, organic farming, and organic food. The government too is putting its weight into environmentally-friendly agriculture. Read on for the latest news in this important field in Japan.


In the summer of 2007, Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) conducted a survey on awareness of environmental agriculture to 2,500 farmers (1,963 responses), 1,381 produce distributors and processors (1,023 responses), and 1,500 consumers (1,207 responses).


Below is a summary of the responses:


- I am not currently engaged in organic farming but would like to be, under the right conditions (49.4%), which would be as follows:

-- Access to marketing outlets that offer reasonable prices for produce (69.0%), and

-- access to technologies that ensure stable yields and good quality (67.5%).


- I currently purchase produce with health and the environment in mind, or would like to purchase it when the following conditions are met (97.2%):

-- Reliable labeling on produce (75.2%), and

-- available locally and easy to access locations (69.1%).


- I would like to consume environment-friendly produce every day, or at least a few days a week (82.4%).


- I would like to purchase environment-friendly produce at the current

price, or at most 20 to 30 percent higher (38.6%).


- I expect that my purchasing of environment-friendly produce be good for ecosystems (65.5%), and will help maintain the fertility of agricultural land (44.4%).


Only 0.17 percent of all produce grown in Japan in 2006 was certified as organic under Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS), the percentage remains stagnant at about that level. Interestingly, the survey revealed growing expectations among farmers, distributors, processors, and consumers for agricultural practices to be environmentally sound, particularly through organic farming, and growing interest in the produce they get from such farming.


In Japan, the Law for Promoting the Introduction of Sustainable Agricultural Production Practices went into effect in October 1999, followed by a bill partially amending the Fertilizer Control Law, plus a bill for promoting proper treatment and utilization of animal manure. These are known as the three environmental agriculture laws, and they were successfully submitted and passed in the Parliament.


The present state of agriculture in Japan gives some cause for concern. The maintenance of fertile land has been neglected, and the long-term sustainability of farmland has deteriorated due to excessive dependence on chemical fertilizers and agrochemicals. Full-scale sustainable agriculture in harmony with the natural environment cannot function under these conditions. To achieve a breakthrough, lawmakers passed the three environmental agriculture laws to strengthen coordination between crop farming and raising livestock, so animal manure is effectively composted, and crop soils are revitalized with organic fertilizer. These changes are required in order to maintain and improve the use of the natural cyclical nature of agriculture, meaning a return to the traditional style of agriculture, in other words.


Under the new laws, local governments were required to draw up their own plans to introduce sustainable agricultural production methods suited to the unique characteristics of their communities. Farmers who comply with the three laws can now be certified as "Eco-Farmers," indicating that they are producers working to enrich their soil and reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and agrochemicals.


A number of new initiatives were launched to promote these laws: a financial support system and preferential taxation measures, such as extension of loan payback periods; regional centers established by local governments to promote sustainable agriculture; regional seminars for farmers to learn sustainable agriculture technologies and techniques; and labeling of environment-friendly produce to attract more support from distributors and consumers.


The government took the initiative to promote more sustainable agricultural practices, for example, by holding environment-friendly farming competitions. As a result, the number of certified Eco-Farmers jumped sharply from 12 at the end of March 2000, right after the enactment of the laws, to 26,233 at the end of fiscal 2003, then 98,874 at the end of fiscal 2006, and 127,266 at the end of fiscal 2007. This means that the government's goal to certify 100,000 Eco-Farmers nationwide by the end of March 2009 was achieved two years ahead of schedule.


Compared to the rapid growth in the number of Eco-Farmers, the number of organic farmers has not increased as much, numbering only 1,509 at the end of September 2007. Also, the quantity of certified organic farm products grown in Japan has increased only slightly, from 33,734 tons (0.10% of total farm produce) in fiscal 2001, to 46,192 tons (0.16%) in fiscal 2003, and 48,596 tons (0.17%) in fiscal 2006.


One of the major reasons for the slow growth in the number of organic farmers is the demanding requirements for certification. For instance, organic farmers must meet international farming standards and be inspected at least once a year. Eco-Farmers, on the other hand, are only required to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and agrochemicals by about 50 percent compared to conventional farming methods. Another reason is that government policy places more emphasis on Eco-Farmers, although it covered both.


Things started changing in December 2006 when the Law on Promotion of Organic Agriculture was enacted. In April 2007, MAFF released a set of five-year guidelines (fiscal 2007 to 2011) for the comprehensive and systematic promotion of organic farming. The guidelines, which include quantitative targets, focus the four points described below.


1. Help farmers switch to organic farming


Farming organically usually requires more working hours and production costs than conventional farming. In order to reduce these barriers and increase the number of organic farmers, further efforts are needed to promote the best and least-expensive organic farming techniques and technologies. In addition, some financial support, such as subsidies or grants, should be provided to both certified and aspiring organic farmers. Under the guidelines, all prefectural governments are required by fiscal 2011 to have solid plans in place to promote organic farming, and also to have established their own training programs with designated instructors to teach organic farming techniques.


2. Facilitate the production, distribution, and sale of organic farm products


Although the number of organic farmers is presently relatively small, the demand for organic agricultural produce is growing steadily. Considering that the key to stable operation of an organic farming business is developing the market in response to rising demand, the guidelines call for (1) improving direct-to-consumer sales facilities through subsidies or grants; (2) providing more information to distributors, retail outlets, and food service companies; and (3) revitalizing the distribution system by changing regulations so that wholesalers are allowed to buy and collect farm products directly from organic farmers without the involvement of any intermediary.


3. Improve consumer access to organic farm products


In order to meet the needs of consumers, besides increasing production, it is important to provide them with accurate information on the production, distribution, sales, and consumption of organic products, and ensure they are properly labeled. MAFF plans to improve the flow of information to and from consumers through the Internet, media, and symposiums. Information on the JAS organic certification system for agricultural products will be provided, and workshops for consumers will be held.


4. Connect organic farmers, consumers, and other stakeholders


Consumer understanding and appreciation of the value of organic farm products is crucial. Partnerships between organic farmers and consumers will be established through food education programs, support of urban-rural exchange facilities, farm studies, and exchanges between urban and rural areas. Using this approach and improving consumer access to organic farm products, the target by fiscal 2011 is to raise to over 50 percent the number of consumers who understand that organic farming is an environment-friendly method of healthy food production that uses no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.


Besides these strategies, MAFF unveiled the following plans to promote and support organic farming: (1) research how to further promote organic farming, (2) assistance for the private sector to engage in organic farming, and (3) research and development to develop new organic farming techniques and technologies. Work is already under way. The budget for this program of comprehensive support for organic farming in 2008 was set at 457 million yen (about US$4.0 million), almost ten times larger than the first year's budget of 54 million yen (about $478,000) in fiscal 2007. It has been accepting applications for its programs of comprehensive support for organic farming since January 31, 2008.


A shift in farmland policy is another important issue. According to the current Agricultural Land Act, in principle, only existing farmers are allowed to acquire farmland, which virtually shuts out newcomers. Also, organic farming, which takes more manpower than conventional farming, has limited prospects in Japanese agriculture because of the rising average age of the population. A review of this situation was finally started in November 2007, and some dramatic reforms are expected, such as accelerating more effective utilization of farmland. The new framework of farmland regulations is scheduled for implementation in fiscal 2008 at the earliest, and no later than fiscal 2009.


Japan's agricultural industry still faces serious problems, such as a 550,000 hectare decrease in cropland actively being cultivated over the past 15 years due to abandonment of the land. Other problems include the aging and declining population in farm villages, and a widening disparity in employment opportunities and wages between rural and urban areas. With the nation's energy self-sufficiency rate at only 4 percent and food self-sufficiency on a calorie basis at 39 percent, Japan is in need of urgent action to improve the situation.


Environment-friendly agriculture, including organic farming, can help stop the aging and decline of populations in agricultural villages and revitalize rural areas, because it requires more labor and increases opportunities for employment. It uses also less energy because it essentially recycles local resources without using any chemical fertilizers or petroleum-based pesticides. The amount of water required is reportedly about one fifth of that used in conventional agriculture. This type of agriculture is key to maintaining Japan's security for many generations to come.


The Strategy Council on the Future of Food was inaugurated in Japan in fiscal 2007. As the global energy and food situation continues to change dramatically, the question it must answer is this: "How can Japanese agriculture become more sustainable?" It has just begun to find answers, but Japan should take action quickly once the path becomes clearer.

(Written by Hiroyo Hasegawa, Japan for Sustainability)

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