Allan Barber picked up, quite by accident, an article in the 20 October edition of The Star, a Malaysian English language newspaper, which described significant changes in Japan’s rice farming habits, he says. Under the headline ‘Japan rice farmers rotting from inside’, the AFP article describes how many rice farmers are retiring with few interested in replacing them.
There is a photo of Shuichi Yokota, aged 38, checking growth conditions with a smartphone in his rice-field 70km from Tokyo. The article describes how he, at half the age of the average grower, flies on cutting edge technology to cultivate vast Padi fields which are many times larger than most of the country’s rice plots.
His farm in Ryugasaki is 112 hectare, having expanded five fold in 15 years, simply, he says, because retiring farmers have asked him to cultivate their farms on their behalf, not wanting to sell the land, but having nobody who wants to buy it. While most rice farmers get along on centuries old methods, Yokota and his colleagues share information and data such as temperature and water levels, monitored by sensors installed in each paddy, on their smartphones.
People are now betting that farmers like Yokota are the best hope of fixing the inefficient Japanese farming system, cosseted by decades of protectionism. Prices for rice have tumbled by half in 50 years and there are fears the sector is rotting from the inside. It also appears Yokota and his like are relaxed about the prospect of opening the market up to foreign competition.
For years, central government has stabilised prices by controlling supply and penalising over-production, as a means of protecting farmers, a key voter base, from the impact of world market volatility. This policy of small scale cultivation, known as ‘gentian’, has effectively made rice farming a part-time job for the older generation while the younger family members get on with higher paid jobs in other sectors.
Unfortunately the age of farmers is 66 on average and many are retiring with few looking to replace them. There is now an area of 400,000 ha, almost twice the size of Tokyo, of unused farmland across Japan. Another complication is the entry of the country’s largest supermarket chain Aeon into the rice business which presumably means more competition and a drive for cheaper prices, not to mention production methods.
It occurs to me that, while Japan continues to obstruct the efforts of Trans-Pacific Partnership signatories to eliminate agricultural tariffs, it may be faced with an inevitable drive from within to do away with historical levels of tariff protection. It may not happen this year or next, but change is afoot.