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Japan: What Quake Means from Ag Perspective

15 March 2011

JAPAN - Japan has a relatively small farming sector. So why does the devastation caused by its earthquake and tsunami matter from an agricultural perspective? gives the lowdown.

How does Japan rate in agriculture?

Japan is a major economic force, if losing its global rank of second to China earlier this year.

However, its might has been built on technology and manufacturing rather than agriculture, in which it remains backward by standards of other industrialised nations.

While the country boasts 1.8m farms rated "commercial", as of 2008, this classification includes all enterprises farming on more than three-quarter of a hectare, or with sales of more than 500,000 yen.

The average farm size is 1.9 hectares, or less than five acres.

Why the small size?

In part, this is down to the topography of the country, which is both mountainous and heavily populated, leaving relatively little for farming.

Indeed, of the 37.8m hectares that the country covers, just 4.7m hectares, or 12%, is farmed. (Farmland is also spread over a distance which, in latitude, matches the east coast of the US, and covers a broad mixture of climates, from the near-Siberian to the near-tropical.)

However, the dearth of consolidation is also down to a generous regime of subsidies, and trade barriers for much of what is produced, equivalent some 48% of total production as of 2008, on Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development figures.

For the European Union, oft-criticised for its generous farm help regime, the figure was 25%, and for the US, less than 7%.

State help reduces the incentive for farms to consolidate to reap economies of scale.

Why do the earthquake and tsunami matter, from an agricultural perspective?

Japan does rank in a reasonable producing force in some agricultural commodities, such as pork, with annual output of some 1.3m tonnes a year, putting it in the same league as Canada, and rice, of which annual output of approaching 8m tonnes takes it near self-sufficiency.

Even if only a small number of livestock operations were directly washed out, there is the problem of keeping them supplied with feed when some mills are reported to have been put out of action, by the tsunami or follow-up power cuts, and stores of feed and ingredients inundated.

Looking longer-term, arable land left salinated by sea water is likely to be less productive for years.

But it is not just production potential which is important, but imports too.

Why so?

Japan is a populous country. With 127m people, it ranks 10th in the world and feeding them is well beyond the capabilities of domestic agriculture.

It is also a rich country, meaning quality takes a higher profile than some other countries. In wheat, for example, it stuck by North American and Australian supplies, even when many other buyers â€" until last summer's Russian drought - switched to more competitive Black Sea imports.

Furthermore, it is a big importer of protein â€" the top importer of pork, by a margin, and the second-biggest net importer of beef, after Russia. (The US also imports more, but nearly matches this in exports.)

The fear among investors is that lower economic growth, or logistical hiccups, will make themselves felt in demand destruction, which will have an undue impact on exports from the US, whose agricultural commodity prices set global benchmarks.

This besides the broader impact that Japan's devastation may have on the broader world economic growth, and therefore its agricultural commodity consumption.

TheCropSite News Desk

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