A group of Japanese farmers protesting peacefully against the G7 meeting, holding placards.

Japan’s Food Sovereignty is under threat. The Japanese Family Farmers’ Movement (Nouminren) calls for a structural rethink

The Basic Law on Food, Agriculture, and Rural Areas in Japan, the most important legislation in the agricultural sector, is currently under review by the Japanese government. Alarmed at the threat to the country’s food sovereignty, the Japanese Family Farmers’ Movement (Nouminren) has presented a proposal advocating for a departure from the neoliberal food and agricultural policies that have been in place. Originally enacted in 1961 as the Agricultural Basic Law, this law is now facing an overall change for the second time in its history. After an interim report by a government-led working group in May 2023, a revised law will be presented in January of next year, with the government aiming to complete the process within the next 12 months.

Japan’s Food Sovereignty under threat

With Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate at a mere 38%, concerns are growing among the population about the vulnerabilities of the nation’s food and agriculture systems. The COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, climate change, and the rising global population have all exacerbated these concerns. For a long time, the Japanese people believed that they could rely on buying food whenever needed. However, as trade surpluses diminish and the account balance worsens, it has become evident that Japan’s ability to purchase sufficient food at any given time is no longer guaranteed. Furthermore, there is an increasing demand for sustainable food and agriculture practices in the country.

Interim Report by the government is barking up the wrong tree

The interim report presents several proposals that, at first glance, appear favorable to small farmers and sustainable food and agriculture. These proposals include recognizing various individuals in rural areas, including part-time farmers, as important actors deserving of support through public policies. The report also suggests creating a system that allows for higher production costs to be factored into the price of agricultural products. Additionally, it encourages increased wheat and soy production, as their current self-sufficiency rates are extremely low, and calls for the establishment of numerical targets for domestically produced fertilizers and feed.

However, the report fails to address the root cause of the challenges faced by Japan’s agriculture and rural areas: neoliberal food and agricultural policies. These policies promote unfettered trade liberalization on farm products and prioritize market-oriented agriculture, providing little to no support for small family farmers. Furthermore, although the current basic law requires the government to set targets for food self-sufficiency every five years, with the current rate set at 45%, these targets have never been achieved. Given the growing concerns about food insecurity in the country, it is imperative to establish a robust structure that enables the government to meet these targets. Regrettably, the report dismisses the significance of the food self-sufficiency rate and deems it insufficient to address the country’s pressing issues.

In addition, the report reflects the government’s focus on bolstering the country’s military strength by advocating for legal preparations that would allow the government to order farmers to produce specific crops and release their products during emergency situations.

Nouminren’s Proposal

A protest by Nouminren in front of MAFF last year (2022) to highlight the struggles of dairy farmers owing to expensive animal feed.

Recognizing the flaws in the current agricultural policies, Nouminren proposes a comprehensive assessment of the impact of the Basic Law over the past 60 years and calls for a complete departure from the neoliberal food and agricultural policies.

Nouminren highlights the following key points in its proposal:

  1. Legally binding food self-sufficiency targets: Nouminren advocates for making food self-sufficiency targets legally binding with the approval of the National Legislature. This would ensure that the government is held accountable for meeting these targets.
  2. Price support and income compensation: The proposal emphasizes the need to establish mechanisms for price support and income compensation to protect farmers from market fluctuations and ensure their livelihoods are sustainable.
  3. Passing production costs onto prices: Nouminren suggests implementing a system that allows for the inclusion of higher costs of feed or other agricultural production while calculating the support price of agricultural products. This would help alleviate the financial burden on farmers.
  4. Increased agricultural budget: To support the revitalization of the agricultural sector, Nouminren calls for a substantial increase in the agricultural budget. Adequate funding would enable the implementation of effective policies and provide necessary resources to support farmers.
  5. Promotion of agroecology and family farming: Nouminren advocates for the promotion of agroecology and family farming practices, which prioritize sustainability, biodiversity, and the well-being of farmers. These approaches offer a viable alternative to the current industrialized agriculture model.

In pursuit of these proposals, Nouminren has published a booklet outlining its recommendations and has launched a nationwide campaign to foster dialogue and exchange among the public.

Cover Image: On April 23rd 2023, the Farmers’ Federation held a publicity stand in Miyazaki City as “Action Day to Deliver the Voices of Citizens and Farmers to the G7 Agriculture Ministers’ Meeting.” They called for the promotion of Family Farms that form the central axis of Japan’s agriculture and demanded a shift to a national agricultural policy that supports small-scale and family farming. Source: Nouminren/Twitter