Even as Japan balks at trade concessions, farmers move on
Japan's agriculture ministry estimates joining TPP could cut the value of agricultural production by another $30 billion, although the economy would get a net boost of around $30 billion, mostly through lower prices for consumers.
But Japan's agricultural lobby - known as JA Zenchu - has presented more than 11 million signatures from voters opposed to Japan's participation in the TPP, talks that involve 12 countries including the United States and Canada.
The lobby's ads denounce the talks as a threat to food safety, farm incomes, rural medical care and even Japan's ability to keep more than 400 far-flung islands populated and under Tokyo's economic control.
Fears over the sustainability of Japan's network of individual farms dating back to the end of World War Two was part of the reason Aeon set-up its own farming unit in 2009.
The operation now includes 14 farms in Japan and slightly more than 200 hectares. The company aims to have 500 hectares under cultivation by 2015. Japan's top supermarket chain has also set a goal of self-sourcing 40 percent of its vegetables, up from less than 1 percent now.
It also makes commercial sense, argues the head of Aeon's farming unit.
"When products are sold directly to merchants ... farmers and producers can use the responses of consumers and build on that information," Yasuaki Fukunaga said.
Enlarging corporate involvement in agriculture is one of Abe's goals, along with lifting farm income and increasing food exports. In June, the government is set to consider reforms intended to reduce barriers to winning local approvals for transfers of farm land, making it easier for entrants like Aeon.
"Against the backdrop of a decrease in the number of agricultural workers, an increase in their ages, and with the amount of abandoned farmland increasing, whatever happens with TPP negotiations, it is extremely important to revitalize domestic farming," Japan's agricultural minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, said during questioning in parliament on Monday.
In November, Abe's government surprised many by announcing it would phase out a 40-year-old policy known as "gentan" under which the government paid farmers - mostly individuals with small plots - in exchange for reducing rice output to protect prices.
But while industry watchers point out that many of Abe's goals to make Japanese agriculture more competitive are not new and the ending of the gentan program coincided with an increase of subsidies for a rice-to-feed program, some experts say the winds are changing.
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