Japanese jitters grow over food security

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Financial Times | 28 April 2009

By Michiyo Nakamoto in Tokyo and Javier Blas in London

The Japanese government is drawing up plans to finance investments in agricultural production in developing countries, in the latest sign of nervousness about food security among countries that import agricultural commodities.

Tokyo is looking to identify regions that could benefit from Japanese investment and assistance to increase food production, according to the country's agriculture ministry.

The investment plans are, nonetheless, of a different nature from those of countries such as South Korea and Saudi Arabia, which are investing in farmland in order to export back the crops to feed their own population. Tokyo is planning to sell crops on the global food market, according to experts and diplomats familiar with Japan's agriculture policy.

Munemitsu Hirano, director for international trade policy negotiations at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said Japan might not be guaranteed stable food supplies as a result of its investment efforts. But he told the Financial Times: "If [food] production increases worldwide that will help Japan to import."

Tokyo has long supported ventures into agriculture by Japan's trading houses – particularly in soya bean production in Latin America after it was spooked by its large dependency on the US during the brief US soya bean embargo of 1973. Itochu and Marubeni, two of the country's trading houses, have said in the past year they wanted to boost their agricultural production and have signed deals with China to supply Beijing with agricultural commodities, particularly soya.

Mr Hirano said the Japanese government was not considering investing in Africa, where the local population faces food shortages, but was looking at regions such as South and Central America and eastern Europe.

There are "high potential areas that might increase food exports with some help – areas that have the production capacity but don't have the distribution system or infrastructure or technology to improve crop quality," he explained.

Countries are seeking to boost food security after last year's spike in agricultural commodities prices and trade restrictions.

So-called land grabbing has alarmed some diplomats, particularly because some countries aim to secure agricultural supplies to feed their own populations regardless of the food situation in the host country.

The International Food Policy Research Institute, a government-backed body, will call on Wednesday for a "code of conduct" to regulate investments in overseas farmland, particularly asking that foreign investors "should not have a right to export" during a food crisis in the host country.

Joachim von Braun, Ifpri director, told the Financial Times that current investments in farmland, including those pending a final agreement, could amount to 15m to 20m hectares – more than twice the cropland area of Germany.
Original source: Financial Times
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