Lessons for China: The powerful position of the Japanese farming industry

Japan’s farming industry occupies a special position in the country’s political, economic and social development. Although farmers are few in number, they wield a strong influence. As a result, a protected farming ecosystem exists in Japan, which has enabled the country to make great strides in organic farming and reducing carbon emissions. The country has also been adept at leveraging its overseas industrial outposts to support its domestic farming sector. What can China learn from Japan’s experience?
A worker operates a harvester machine at a tea plantation in Minamiyamashiro, Kyoto, Japan, on 14 May 2021. (Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg)
A worker operates a harvester machine at a tea plantation in Minamiyamashiro, Kyoto, Japan, on 14 May 2021. (Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg)

On 14 May, the Japanese paper Mainichi Shimbun published an article on the Japanese farming industry’s bid to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) has submitted a report of its medium- to long-term development strategy to the Agriculture and Forestry Division of the Liberal Democratic Party for its discussion.

This report contains Japan’s strategy for developing its farming industry and reflects the special position that the industry occupies in the country’s political, economic and social development.  

Japan is an industrialised nation with a small land area and limited arable land. However, it has gradually formed an economic system based on farming. Even though only a small proportion of Japan’s population are farmers, the group plays an increasingly important role in Japanese politics.

In sharp contrast to the MAAF’s ambitious strategy to redue carbon dioxide emissions, Japan’s management of nuclear power facilities has been really disappointing.

Strong push towards organic farming

Although the farming industry lacks competitiveness, it has come into its own as a result of the government’s protectionist trade policies. In terms of fine-tuning the Japanese farming industry, Japan has become a world leader in modernisation and mechanisation as it seeks a sustainable path for agricultural development.

First, Japan is an example to the world in advancing organic farming. According to the MAAF report, the country’s agriculture, forestry and fishery sectors are set to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2025. This means that the Japanese government will be promoting organic pesticides and fertilisers. To curb chemical fertiliser usage, the amount of land allocated for organic farming will grow to occupy 25% of all farming land by 2025. At the same time, the usage of chemical pesticides will be reduced by 50% and that of chemical fertilisers will be reduced to 30%.

By 2025, all polyhouses in Japan will be converted into facilities that do not use fossil fuels, meaning that the farming industry will gradually go organic. By 2024, all farming machinery and fishing boats in Japan will be powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels. By 2030, the country’s emission of greenhouse gases will be 46% lower than what it was in 2013. Japan is determined to resolve the carbon dioxide emission problem caused by its farming industry.

japan tea
Tea leaves grow in a field at a tea plantation in Minamiyamashiro, Kyoto, Japan on 14 May 2021. (Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg)

Nuclear energy still an Achilles heel

In sharp contrast to the MAAF’s ambitious strategy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, Japan’s management of nuclear power facilities has been really disappointing. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster made international society realise that even though environmental conservation and carbon dioxide emissions are high on Japan’s list of priorities, it has failed to choose the correct path in transforming its energy sector.

Whether nuclear power stations are a clean source of energy is still being debated. Japan invested heavily in the development of nuclear power stations to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, but serious facility management issues caused the nuclear disaster.

Additionally, in dealing with the wastewater from the nuclear disaster, the Japanese government has decided to dispose of it into the sea instead of opting for the practical and effective option of keeping the disposal under strict management. This has provoked the ire of its neighbours.

On the one hand, Japan is taking steps to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions through investing in organic farming and making the farming industry more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient. On the other hand, it is polluting the environment in its own way and creating catastrophic outcomes for mankind.

Even though only a small proportion of the country’s population are farmers, this group wields considerable political influence. During elections, no political party can afford to ignore voters from the farming regions.

fishing fukushima
Workers sort fishes after a fishing operation at Matsukawaura fishing port in Soma, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, 12 April 2021. (Kyodo/via Reuters)

A powerful farm lobby

Second, the farming industry is the birthplace of Japanese politics and contemporary Japanese politics can also trace its roots to this industry. Even though only a small proportion of the country’s population are farmers, this group wields considerable political influence. During elections, no political party can afford to ignore voters from the farming regions. Likewise, any politician seeking to carve out a political career has to take the interests of farmers seriously. This can perhaps explain the outsized fiscal investment of the Japanese government in the farming industry and rural areas despite their relatively small contribution to the Japanese economy.   

Japanese villages are served by well-developed road networks and good public infrastructure. This indicates that villages stand at the nexus of Japanese politics. At the same time, it also demonstrates the highly peculiar imbalance in the country’s political, economic, social and cultural development. 

Japanese living in villages can use their votes to influence political decisions, and alter government trade and environmental protection policies. In order to please its farmers, the Japanese government has rolled out a series of measures to protect the environment. Their implementation will definitely lead to greater government investment in the farming industry, and there is a chance that it may be the first in the world to turn organic.

At the same time, increasing investment in the farming industry will further enhance the influence of rural regions and farmers, inevitably bringing about new changes to the structure of Japanese politics, economy and society. 

Developing organic farming would not have been possible without a strong industrial base and modern technology.

Overseas industries support domestic farming

Third, Japan is a resource-starved nation, and its government has adopted a strategy of building “mini Japans” overseas in the form of industrial parks, thereby establishing overseas Japanese industrial systems. At home, the government is focused on modernising the farming sector and making it first-rate despite its small size, so as to satisfy domestic demand for agricultural products.

Japan’s approach of using industry to support farming and its strategy of using external markets to promote the development of its farming industry contains valuable lessons for other countries. For an industrialised nation with a small land area, Japan has chosen to develop its industries through overseas markets and its farming sector through national resources.

From a resource allocation perspective, Japan probably did not have much of a choice, but objectively speaking, this decision has provided its farming industry with rich resources and governmental support, positioning it well to become the first country to enter the organic farming era.

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A farmer works near a wind turbine at the Electric Power Development Co., Ltd's Nunobiki Plateau Wind Farm in Koriyama, north of Tokyo, 8 November 2007. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

Developing organic farming would not have been possible without a strong industrial base and modern technology. The Japanese government is encouraging its farmers to remake the natural environment and switch to organic farming. To this end, the country has produced numerous organically farmed legends, such as its renowned apples and watermelons. Admittedly, respecting nature and making use of the natural environment to produce premium fruits is the secret behind the Japanese farming industry and its development path.

Even though Japanese agricultural products are pricier, Japanese consumers are willing to pay for them since they are fully organic products. The protectionist trade policies put in place by the Japanese government to prohibit the import of agricultural products have also allowed the farming industry, especially organic farming to survive and develop.

China needs to ensure that its people are fed, so survival is its top consideration.

For China, quantity over quality?

The circumstances facing China is entirely different from that of Japan. As the most populous nation in the world, China needs to ensure that its people are fed, so survival is its top consideration. It needs to increase its production volume of agricultural products through various ways before focusing on their quality. Unlike Japan, China cannot afford to implement protectionist trade policies as it needs to import large quantities of agricultural products to meet the demands of its consumers and to ensure food security. 

While China can learn from Japan’s experience in developing organic farming, it cannot copy Japan’s development plan wholesale. China’s agricultural products need to be affordable to its consumers, and in importing agricultural products, the country also needs to consider the developmental needs of its farming industry. It can be said that when it comes to environmental conservation for the farming industry, the Chinese government has to consider way more factors than its Japanese counterpart.

china farm
Farmers plant okra at a field in Nantong, in China's eastern Jiangsu province on 19 April 2021. (STR/AFP)

Even though this is the case, China has been relentless in cutting the carbon dioxide emissions of its farming industry in recent years. The country is reducing its reliance on chemical fertilisers and promoting organic fertilisers. It is also using 5G mobile communications network technology and AI to transform its farming machinery. There are now farms in North and Northeast China that do not require human labour to manage. This shows that China continues to progress in reducing the carbon dioxide emissions of its farming industry. It is relying on technological innovation to do so and choosing a developmental path that meets its needs.

China needs to be fully cognisant that the farming industry does not operate in a vacuum. Using industry to support farming is common in industrialised countries.

Hard lessons in sustainable farming

Frankly speaking, without the shield of protectionism, the Japanese farming industry lacks competitiveness in the global agricultural products market. Japan is fully utilising its unique economy and trade systems to make its farming industry sustainable. This is something that China needs to seriously consider.

The Japanese farming sector is not unlike holding an elaborate Taoist ritual in the shell of a river snail (that is, making great strides despite constraints). China will do well to study the continuous fine-tuning of the Japanese farming sector carefully. In recent years, Japan has gone back to the basics to focus on agroecology, and while this has reduced the quantity of crops, quality has improved immensely. Japanese agricultural products satisfy the needs of high-end consumers and are in a class of their own in the farming produce market.

The long-term development strategy formulated by the MAAF contains several useful pointers for China. First, there is a need to pay special attention to carbon dioxide emissions by the farming sector. Through technological innovation, such emissions can be reduced. By cutting down the usage of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, greater efforts can be made to develop organic farming.

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A pear farm in Tottori prefecture, Japan, March 2019. (SPH)

Second, China needs to be fully cognisant that the farming industry does not operate in a vacuum. Using industry to support farming is common in industrialised countries. Although countries like the US are opposed to economies and countries, such as China, in emerging markets subsidising domestic agricultural products, anyone who is familiar with the fiscal policies of Western countries will realise that the farming sector in these countries rely on government subsidies. Each year, the Japanese government hands out plenty of subsidies to its farming sector, without which, the latter would not have been able to embark on its transformation to agroecology. 

Third, China needs to have a comprehensive plan for tackling food security issues. On the one hand, it needs to raise production volume and become self-sufficient. On the other hand, it needs to use all effective and practical means to reform conventional farming in the country through promoting the development of agroecology, reducing the usage of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and stamping out genetically modified food. In modernising animal husbandry, China should also give full consideration to ecological protection.

China has implemented a no-fishing policy throughout the Yangtze River basin. This has very important practical implications for fishery development in the region. However, it is important to highlight that large-scale farming comes with a host of problems. Even though China has not experienced outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, the widespread use of manufactured feeds and additives in such farming means that the quality of Chinese agricultural products is worrying.

Through developing agroecology, China can ensure the quality of agricultural products at their source. In addition, revamping the distribution system of Chinese agricultural products and further clarifying prepacking standards can turn Chinese agricultural products into fully organic products of reliable quality.

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