Thursday, August 23, 2007

And Unto the Farmer...

...shall be given...what?

A great deal of attention has been paid to the possible consequence of the DPJ's following through on its campaign promise to not support an extension of the anti-terrorism special measures law. Equal attention should be paid attention to the consequences of the DPJ trying to follow through on its promises to the nation's small farmers.

Japanese agriculture faces a plethora of crises. It has a demographic time bomb : half of farmers are over 60 years of age, with the median age of the full-time farmer at around 58. Most farms are too small for economies of scale, most indeed are little more than income-producing gardens, with the main family income coming from construction, factory or office work. For tax, inheritance, sentiment and ideological reasons, land sales to other farmers remain low. Corporations were prevented from farming, shutting off another avenue for land consolidation. Finally, with the liberalization of air and ship trade in agricultural products, Japanese growers find themselves in competition not only with the factory farms of the U.S. and Australia but the dirt poor peasantry of China.

In an effort to encourage the rationalization of the agriculture sector, the government began providing large scale growers of rice and four other staples with "market stability support payments." While laudable in terms of ends--the establishment of a professional class of farmers growing crops on large enough plots for economies of scale--the subsidy program was tone deaf in terms of politics and social justice.

Paying large-scale farmers to squeeze out small- and medium-sized farmers may make sense on an Excel graph or a consultant's Powerpoint slide--but small- and medium-sized framers still vote, a fact not lost on Ozawa Ichirō. He promised to extend the subsidy program to small- and medium-sized farms--negating the entire purpose of the exercise, of course. The owners of small- and medium-sized farms saw the opportunity to beat the system ...and on July 29, they did--punishing the LDP for the government program.

Having won the votes of these farmers and control of the House of Councillors, will the Emperor of Iwate Prefecture force the government to follow through on his promises?

It is hard to see what could stop him.

Rice farmer and the shadow of the Koiwa Line train
Ichihara City, Chiba Prefecture,
August 11, 2007

Consider that the DPJ is riding high in the polls, trouncing the LDP in theoretical House of Representatives contests. Consider that the DPJ, with help from the Socialists and popularizers of right-wing nostalgia, has spliced white- and blue-collar worker resentment for not receiving a share of the increase in corporate profits from this last recovery together with the declining economic relevance of the countryside into a single concept--shakai kakusa no akka--"the worsening differences in society"--camouflaging the enormous differences between the two issues (indeed, the expansion of subsidies to farmers will only worsen the status of the workers and mid-level management due to the increase in taxes necessary to pay for the subsidies).

Given the number of LDP bigwigs in the House of Representatives with their home districts in rural constituencies, is it at all plausible to believe that the LDP will hold the line, restricting the subsidies to large-scale growers?


Of course, if small-scale, part-time farmers refuse to sell out and move to town, leaving agriculture to those willing to specialize in it (comparative advantage) then agriculture in Japan will slowly choke itself to death...and the Japanese government in the meanwhile will find itself unable to sign a single major free trade agreement requiring concessions on agricultural products.

For more, see the Asahi Shimbun editorial of August 19, 2007 政治と農政―改革につながる提案を (sorry, no translation available) .

1 comment:

Tobias Samuel Harris said...

But, of course, Japanese agricultural self-sufficiency is just around the corner...right?