The recent gathering of farm ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized nations was a missed opportunity for Japan to set realistic goals to improve agricultural self-sufficiency as it faces a host of challenges to food security, experts say.

Everything from a chronic lack of resources, a dwindling working population, government reluctance to overhaul agricultural policy and boost rice production, and even changes in eating habits have reduced Japan to a nation precariously dependent on imports.

A farmer checks his rice field in Anjo, Aichi Prefecture in central Japan on June 16, 2022. (Kyodo) 

Russia's war with Ukraine and the subsequent shock to global supply chains served as a further reminder of the vulnerability of Japan's food systems against external conflicts.

Last month, at the G-7 farm ministers' meeting in Miyazaki in southwestern Japan, the host country received praise from its counterparts for adopting innovative and sustainable agricultural practices to address its problems. But some experts argue that the government is banking too much on these initiatives.

"Many policies such as the (strategy) for increasing the area devoted to organic farming to 1 million hectares by 2050, or 40 times the current level, are, realistically, difficult to achieve," said Yusaku Yoshikawa, an aid consultant at agricultural development firm JIN Corp.

Organic farming, where food is produced through practices that use only natural substances, appeals to Japan as an alternative to it being almost entirely reliant on imported materials for chemical fertilizers.

Yoshikawa said that fertilizers and feed for livestock animals form the basis of agricultural production.

But simultaneously, the human resources required to implement the government's strategies continue diminishing. Japan had 1.36 million self-employed farmworkers in 2020, a decrease from 2.24 million, or 39 percent, in 2005, according to a Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries survey.

"It is important to translate concepts such as sustainable agriculture into feasible actions that are grounded in reality," Yoshikawa said.

Meanwhile, China's increasing military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region has fanned concerns that it could attempt to invade self-ruled Taiwan, which would rapidly compromise Japan's food security.

Nobuhiro Suzuki, a professor at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is among those who fear that an emergency in Taiwan could see the maritime trade routes that bring Japan its food and farming materials severed and plunge the world's third-largest economy into a hunger crisis.

"If there is an emergency in Taiwan, many Japanese will starve to death before they can even fight," Suzuki said, referring to Japan's ongoing efforts to beef up its defense capabilities.

The Group of Seven agricultural ministers hold a joint press conference following a two-day meeting in Miyazaki, southwestern Japan, on April 23, 2023. (Kyodo)

Japan's food self-sufficiency rate was at 38 percent in fiscal 2021 on a calorie basis. Although it had risen by one percentage point from the previous fiscal year, it remains the lowest among the G-7 nations. The next lowest is Italy at 58 percent.

Suzuki said that if the trade routes were cut off, and Japan was left with no food or the means to grow it, harvests would be halved, and the overall food self-sufficiency rate would only be around 10 percent, nowhere near enough to sustain its population of 124 million.

"For example, 90 percent of vegetable seeds are harvested from overseas fields. If the inflow of goods stops, the self-sufficiency rate for vegetables will not be 80 percent (as it is now), but will only be enough for planting 8 percent," Suzuki said.

Suzuki also noted the importance of fertilizers, whose prices have skyrocketed following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Russia and its ally Belarus were major suppliers to Japan before trade all but stopped due to the war. China, another critical provider of phosphorus and ammonia for manufacturing chemical fertilizers, has also curbed exports in favor of domestic use.

Kazuhito Yamashita, research director of agricultural policy at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, is another sounding the alarm over Japan's self-sufficiency. He estimates that tens of millions could die of starvation if rice stockpiles ran out after the sea lanes were disrupted from a Taiwan contingency.

In the event of a crisis that lasted one year, Yamashita said, "16 million tons of rice would be needed" for Japan to sustain itself. "But (currently) we have only less than 7 million tons, so 60 million people or more will die of hunger," he said, adding, "That (would be) a terrible disaster."

But Yamashita also pointed out that if Japan were to take advantage of rice, one of the only staples it can efficiently produce by itself, it could be self-sufficient enough to survive in crises and become a key exporter to the global market.

To do this, Yamashita said Japan needs to overhaul its agricultural policy.

In 2018, the government abolished a postwar rice-acreage reduction program that subsidized farmers for keeping rice production low and domestically focused on maintaining high prices. This was due to shifts in public demand from almost exclusively rice to other grains and livestock products.

However, despite a formal policy no longer in place, the government has continued to subsidize farmers, including many who only work part-time and belong to the influential Japan Agricultural Cooperatives group that benefits from the high price of rice.

A change in this policy could see Japan boost its self-sufficiency and make a massive contribution to global food security.

According to Yamashita, if Japan exported 10 million tons of rice, the global rice trade would jump by 20 percent to 60 million tons, and Japan could become the world's second-largest exporter behind India.