Strengthening supplies: Japan looks to international food trade collaborations in latest bid to beef up food security

Japan has been battling the issue of weak food security and a low rate of self-sufficiency​, which emerged as a glaring ongoing risk for the country during the lockdowns and supply chain challenges faced during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whilst the government has launched various agri-food initiatives boost local food production and self-sufficiency in the long run, in the shorter term it is looking to increase its international food trade agreements.

This became more urgent due to supply chain challenges and shortages caused by the Russia-Ukraine war.

“In order to ensure that Japan maintains a stable food supply given that we import a large amount of food, it is important to not only increase domestic agricultural production and improve food self-sufficiency, but also [employ more] collaborative measures,” ​Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) stated in a formal statement.

“Because it is very fundamental to ensure Japan’s food security, we are working to appropriately combine the strategies of both ensuring stable imports and establishing sufficient stockpiles for emergencies.”

Two markets – Bangladesh and Canada – have recently become the centre of Japan’s negotiations, both producing food products for which it has shown significant production decreases over the past few decades.

These include wheat from Bangladesh for which Japan is only 15% self-sufficient, as well as dairy and beef from Canada for which it is respectively only 26% and 9% self-sufficient when taking the entire supply chain into account, according to government data.

“[This agreement is crucial to] reaffirm the importance of food security, especially in light of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine [which has resulted in the disruption] of some global food supply chains,”​ MAFF said in the trade agreement with Canada.

“Through this we will also further encourage efforts to realise greater sustainability in agriculture production and food systems [so as to support] food security].”

For Japan’s trade agreement with Bangladesh, the governments of both countries signed a formal Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) with regard to food and agriculture.

“This MoC will focus on the collaboration between both countries in the areas of trade, investment, technology and innovation within the food and agriculture sectors, as well as food security and climate change,”​ MAFF stated.

“It will stay in effect for five years from April 2023, and a Joint Agricultural Working Group will be formed to provide guidance, review the progress of activities, projects and to facilitate cooperation.”

No end in sight yet

As Japan’s overall food self-sufficiency rate currently still stands at no more than 38% – the lowest value amongst all developed markets, according to its own research – it will take some time before it can move from relying on such trade collaborations and imports to its own production to ensure food security.

As such, it is highly likely that more such trade agreements are on the way for Japan, particularly focused on commodities that it has low production volumes in thus far, and which are significantly affected by the Ukraine crisis.

Wheat in particular is likely to see more focus, due to not only its low domestic supply and previous export dominance by Russia and Ukraine, but also a rising demand amongst younger consumers in Japan.

“Japan’s rainy seasons makes it difficult to produce wheat stably, and temperatures are also too low to grow it as a secondary crop in paddy fields other than in very limited production areas,”​ said MAFF.

“For this reason, the government will continue to try to ensure a stable supply through state trade by importing foreign-produced wheat to meet the demand that cannot be met by domestic production.

“We are seeing an increase in the production of sweet buns, instant noodles, fresh noodles (including frozen noodles), and macaroni (pasta, spaghetti, etc.) made using wheat, and as such we are aware that the demand is definitely there.”