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Ukraine invasion and climate change drive concerns over Japan’s food security

  • March 22, 2022
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press


SAPPORO – Despite putting in place a broad range of sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, the government indicated last week that it was planning to leave imported marine products untouched — a reflection of not only political and economic concerns, but also deeper worries about the impact of import curbs on Japan’s general food security.


According to the agriculture ministry, the import value of such products from Russia last year was ¥38 billion for crab, ¥20 billion for salmon and trout, ¥13.2 billion for cod roe and ¥9.8 billion for sea urchin.


Russian cod roe and sea urchin accounted for a high percentage of domestic consumption, with the former being used for the common dish mentaiko. If imports are banned, not only food processors but also the entire food service industry would be negatively affected.


On March 11, the Group of Seven agriculture ministers warned that Russia’s war is leading to soaring prices for cereals worldwide, especially for wheat and maize, and that a further increase in food price levels and volatility in international commodity markets could threaten food security globally. In Japan, which relies heavily on imported foods, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to calls for the nation to strengthen its domestic food security measures.


The ruling Liberal Democratic Party on March 10 adopted a resolution calling on the government to strengthen its food security policy. It warned that the risk involved in dependence on foreign countries is increasing amid the pandemic and the situation in Ukraine. The resolution calls for the strengthening of domestic production bases and for the government to conduct a broad review of current legislation related to food security, including the Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas Basic Law established in 1999.


Amid soaring market prices for oil and grain, the resolution also seeks to ensure the government takes action to ensure Japan does not lose out to other countries in its efforts to purchase raw materials from abroad that are necessary for the agriculture and food industries. Due to concerns about livestock feed prices also spiking, the government will make efforts to increase and expand domestic feed production.


For the fiscal year beginning April 2020, Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate stood at 37% on a calorie basis, matching the record low seen in fiscal 2018. The government’s goal is to raise this rate to 45% by 2030 under the 1999 law.


But Japan’s domestic agriculture production base continues to weaken due to an aging, decreasing workforce and falling amount of farmland under cultivation, meaning the food self-sufficiency rate has remained stagnant.


The LDP resolution noted the law stipulates that a stable supply of food should be secured through an appropriate combination of imports and stockpiling while observing the principle of increasing domestic agricultural production.


For Japan’s ¥1.5 trillion imported seafood products market in the 2020 calendar year, 7.1% was imported from Russia, making it the fifth-largest importer after China (18%), Chile (10.3%), the U.S. (8%) and Vietnam (7.5%). Russian salmon made up 9.4% of Japan’s ¥200 billion market for imported salmon, far behind Chile (60.5%) and Norway (22.3%).


While the above figures are for Japan as a whole, and the self-sufficiency rate was at 55% for seafood products on a calorie basis in fiscal 2020, Hokkaido is particularly reliant on Russian seafood imports from the adjacent north Pacific Ocean, including around nearby islands occupied by Russia and claimed by Japan.


Last year, the prefecture received 97.4% of its sea urchin, 84.1% of its crab, 51.1% of its salmon and 38.8% of its squid from Russia, according to customs data, creating strong local concerns about the effect of Japan’s sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, which include a ban on seafood exports.


Meanwhile, the self-sufficiency rate was at 15% for wheat on a calorie basis. For Japan’s ¥162.8 billion imported wheat market, America was the dominant supplier, with a 46.9% share. Canada (36.5%) and Australia (16.2%) were the other suppliers. So while Russia and the Ukraine account for about 29% of the world’s wheat exports, Japan receives virtually none from either country.


The self-sufficiency rate for vegetables is 76%, while the rate for sugar varieties is 36%. The rate was at 16% for livestock products and 21% for soybeans on a calorie basis.


Climate risk

There are other looming threats to Japan’s food security besides supply disruptions and price hikes due to the Russian invasion. The big risk is climate change and its effect on agricultural and seafood supply in the coming years, especially in other countries in Asia from which Japan imports agricultural products, with effective climate adaptation strategies in both Japan and those countries being a key long-term challenge for the nation.


A report released last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that Asia as a whole accounts for 67% of global agricultural production and that climate-related risks to agriculture and food security in the region will progressively escalate as warming reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius and higher.


But the impact will be uneven. One part of an Asian country or subregion might be able to enjoy better food security, while other parts of the same country or other subregions will see greater insecurity.


Among the impacts to Japan’s food production, the IPCC report predicts current rice producing regions throughout the country will be divided into suitable and unsuitable areas as temperatures increase, and that this will mean a possible shift in areas where rice is currently grown, resulting in different yields for different areas. Japan’s self-sufficiency rate was at 98% for rice on a calorie basis in fiscal 2020.


The IPCC report also predicted a change in the distribution of suitable areas for subtropical citrus by the middle of the 21st century, as rising temperatures will change where the fruits can flourish.

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