Japan’s Struggling Agricultural System

As I was writing my first post for this blog, I stumbled across an interesting article that analyzes Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio.  As defined in the article, the food self-sufficiency ratio is “an index that shows the ratio of calorie supply from domestically produced food compared to the total calorie supply from food in the country”.  In Japan, this ratio has declined precipitously, though not always steadily, from 79% in 1960 to 39% in 2006.

Though the article is somewhat technical in its language, the basic point is that Japan is increasingly unable to feed itself with food grown and produced domestically.  This is due to a number of factors, primarily the increasing Westernization of the Japanese diet following World War II.

As prosperity grew following the War, more and more Japanese turned away from their traditional diet toward one rich in meats, oils, and fats.  Essentially, as people became wealthier, they increased their caloric intake and relied less on domestic foods, especially rice.  The increased demand for meat had a particularly devastating effect on Japan’s food self-sufficiency, because it forced the government to import cheap livestock feed, like corn and soybeans, from abroad.

When times were less flush, as from 1974-1985, people ate fewer of the aforementioned animal, fat, and oil products.  However, the trend toward a more Western diet continued.  Rice, once the foundation of the Japanese diet, was being consumed in ever-decreasing amounts, in part due to the rice diversion program.

The author, a professor at Kobe University, argues that another reason Japan’s food self-sufficiency will continue to decline is the prevalence of pre-prepared foods and eating out.  He also points out that home cooking has become increasingly less cost-effective, due to smaller household size and a growing penchant for “gourmet food”.  As more and more Japanese women work full-time, the number of meals prepared from scratch falls as well.

The good news is that the Japanese government has implemented a plan to improve the food self-sufficiency ratio, with the goal of raising it to 45% by 2015.  However, the author notes that if current trends continue, the ratio will likely only be at 39% in five years.

Although this article concerns Japan, it also brings to light some issues Americans are currently grappling with.  It forces us to think about our own country’s food security, something that more and more people are addressing by turning their front lawns, fire escapes, roofs, and dirt-less greenhouses into gardens.  Furthermore, it reveals that the problems associated with the so-called Western diet are not limited to health.  Rather, it demonstrates how our agricultural policies – namely the subsidized, large-scale production of corn and soy for livestock – affect the livelihoods and health of people across the globe.

In case you missed the link to the article the first time, here it is again (scroll down to the bottom of the page for the PDF file):

“Sharp Decline in the Food Self-Sufficiency Ratio in Japan and its Future Prospects”, by Toshiyuki Kako.


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