The Japanese Earthquake and Agricultural Trade


The earthquake and associated tsunami have had an impact on Japan’s agricultural production and food import capacity, but wide spread damage appears to have avoided. Japan’s food self sufficiency on a caloric basis is estimated by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries at 41 percent, and import capacity is as important as its domestic production capabilities. Imports are likely to increase to cover immediate domestic production shortfalls. Long-term changes in imports will be driven by changes in government food policies.


Japan is about the size of California and mostly rugged and mountainous; only 11.6 percent of its land is considered arable and another 0.9 percent is in permanent crops. It has 10.5 million acres of cropland with 60 percent irrigated. Production agriculture accounts for 1.1 percent of the country’s GDP, with 3.9 percent of the labor force employed in farming. Commercial farms are small by U.S. standards, averaging a little less than 5 acres. Rice paddies cover half the farmland, but 30 percent of that land is diverted to other crops. A little less than 20 percent of the nation’s rice land has been affected and some land may shift back to rice in other parts of the country. According to the Foreign Agricultural Service of USDA, rice carryover supplies in Japan are about 34 percent of annual use.

The most severe damage is on the east side of Honshu, the main island, from Tokyo to the northern end. The agricultural island of Hokkaido to the north has much less damage. The same is true of the west side of Honshu and the southern half of the island. Japan’s dry winter season ended about mid-February with the beginning of the rainy season. April-May is the main planting time. Some of the land flooded by the tsunami may be planted this year if the water can be drained and debris removed. Land contaminated by salt will need at least a year to be restored.

Preliminary reports indicate that the major ports in northeast Honshu most damaged by the earthquake and tsunami handle mostly non-agricultural products. One that does import grain is hampered by power outages. Most meat imports enter through southern ports that have received only minimal damage. Shortages of electricity have already been identified as a general problem in areas where nuclear power plants have gone off-line, but Japan has surplus generation capacity that can help meet immediate demands. The electric power grid is working in most of the country and power is being shifted to areas that have lines operational. Most of the livestock and feed mills are located in the central portion of the country according to Parr Rosson of Texas A & M University. Problems moving feed into areas with infrastructure damage may reduce meat, milk and egg production.

Long-term impacts of radiation leaks from disabled nuclear power plants on agricultural production are not part of the current assessments.
According to Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries estimates for 2008, self sufficiency ranges from 96 percent for eggs, 95 percent for rice, 80 percent for vegetables, 70 percent for milk and dairy products, 56 percent for meats, 41 percent for fruit, 26 percent for feed grains, 14 percent for wheat and 6 percent for soybeans. The high self sufficiency for eggs, dairy products and meats are made possible by imports of feed grains and soybeans used for livestock and poultry feed.

USDA estimates that Japan imported over $40 billion of agricultural products in 2009, making it the third largest importer after the U.S. and the EU with the U.S. supplying almost 30 percent of the total. The ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were the next largest at 14 percent, followed by China and the EU at about 11 percent each and Australia at 7 percent. Meats account for about 20 percent of imports on a value basis, followed by cereal grains, processed foods and oilseeds. Japan is the world’s largest importer of meat on a value basis. Meat demand could decline due to lost income in areas with the greatest economic damage.

U.S. agricultural exports to Japan of $13.1 billion in calendar 2010 were led by corn at $3.02 billion, followed by pork at $1.55 billion, soybeans and products at $1.33 billion, all fruits, vegetables and juices at $1.27 billion, other feeds and fodders at $0.85 billion, wheat at $0.79 billion and beef and veal at $0.55 billion. Japan accounted for 30 percent of U.S. corn exports, 6 percent of whole soybean, 14 percent of wheat, 14 percent of beef, 28 percent of pork and 11 percent of fruits, vegetables and juices. Japan could make immediate purchases of additional supplies of these products with minimal affects on markets. Long-term demand changes could be met by the U.S. and the other traditional suppliers.

The Japanese government will have to consider changing import policies for agricultural commodities and food products to avoid higher consumer prices resulting from shortages of some products. It has high tariffs on consumer products such as milk for manufacturing, sugar beets and sugarcane, and has tariff-rate quotas (TRQs) for wheat, flour, butter and milk powder.

Several months ago Prime Minister Kan had set a June deadline to consider changes in agricultural policies in preparation for joining negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. Talks have been ongoing for a year among nine Pacific Rim countries, including the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. Large Japanese businesses have been pushing for participation, but Japanese agriculture would have to give up some import restrictions. Making trade policy changes now would be difficult, but import restrictions that drive up consumers’ food costs are not consistent with an internationally competitive country.

The initial assessments are that agriculture at a national level will be less hard hit than some other industries, but disruptions in supplies will be felt by consumers. Farms in the northeast part of Honshu will suffer the largest impact and may not return to normal for several years. Other areas may face shortages of input or have extra costs in moving products to market. As the government deals with immediate issues of food supply, it will also need to consider long term food supply issues and the role of trade.

Ross Korves

Ross Korves

Ross Korves served Truth about Trade & Technology, before it became Global Farmer Network, from 2004 – 2015 as the Economic and Trade Policy Analyst.

Researching and analyzing economic issues important to agricultural producers, Ross provided an intimate understanding regarding the interface of economic policy analysis and the political process.

Mr. Korves served the American Farm Bureau Federation as an Economist from 1980-2004. He served as Chief Economist from April 2001 through September 2003 and held the title of Senior Economist from September 2003 through August 2004.

Born and raised on a southern Illinois hog farm and educated at Southern Illinois University, Ross holds a Masters Degree in Agribusiness Economics. His studies and research expanded internationally through his work in Germany as a 1984 McCloy Agricultural Fellow and study travel to Japan in 1982, Zambia and Kenya in 1985 and Germany in 1987.

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