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Japan struggles to boost homegrown food

NARA, Japan (AP)--Masayuki Miura's restaurant is radically out of step with modern Japanese tastes. No Australian beef hamburgers, no mountains of fried Brazilian chicken, no imported steaks. Not a Chinese cabbage in sight.

Instead, Miura and his wife Yoko serve up a 100 percent made-in-Japan offering of fish and locally grown organic rice and vegetables, including centuries-old Japanese heirloom varieties.

"We need more people to eat Japanese vegetables," declared Miura, whose restaurant overlooks his almost five-acre farm in western Japan. "Of course, it's a food culture issue. Hamburgers don't have Japanese vegetables in them."

No, they don't--and many in Japan consider that a major problem.

The Japanese on average get only 40 percent of their calories from domestic food, down from 73 percent in 1965, the government says, putting the country's self-sufficiency rate near the bottom of the 30-country Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The United States, an agricultural exporter, has a 128 percent rate, and even a smaller nation like Britain can provide 70 percent of its citizens' calories.

Amid rising world food prices and a series of imported food contamination scandals, Japan is afraid it is too reliant on foreign food. The government released a report late last year showing what Japanese would have to eat without imports. The typical lunch: One potato, two sweet potatoes and a quarter of an apple.

"We have to wonder whether Japan should continue buying up food from around the world," said Hidenobu Ogawa, a food safety official with the Agriculture Ministry. "Japan has economic power now. But if we lose strength in the future, can we get enough food to survive?"

The government has set a target of boosting the self-sufficiency rate up to 45 percent by 2015, and has launched a series of campaigns--from open markets featuring Japanese foods to commercials urging people to eat more rice.

At a recent "Eat Japan" event that featured locally produced vegetables and meat, an animated video told the woeful tale of how Japan grew rich in the 1970s and '80s and took a liking to foreign foods. As the food on an imaginary family's table changes from fish and rice to meat and french fries, their bodies grow round and flabby.

"We have to do something to preserve Japanese food and protect our children," the announcer says. "Thinking about food supply is thinking about the future."

But the dependence on foreign farms won't be easy to unwind in a country that has long equated modern prosperity and well-being with Western food culture. Bread made from foreign wheat has replaced rice at the breakfast table, and workers line up not for fish but for bowls of rice smothered in Australian and American beef. McDonald's does a brisk business at its 3,700 outlets here.

Indeed, Japanese tastes have tilted toward foods their crowded, mountainous country is ill-suited to produce: wheat grown in mega-farms that slice across the horizon, or beef-cows raised on huge rolling fields of pasture.

The economics of agriculture have even turned the tables on producers of traditional foods. Japan, for instance, imports some 95 percent of its soybeans--which are produced far more cheaply abroad--for use in making soy sauce, tofu and sticky "natto" fermented beans.

Many in Japan are also blaming changing tastes for a marked increase in weight gain and "metabolic syndrome"--a cluster of symptoms that links consumption of meat and fats with obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Despite the hand-wringing, massive tariffs on food imports aren't likely, and some economists warn that protectionist measures in Japan or elsewhere would be damaging.

"If interventionist tactics really take root, it'll disrupt the world trade in food," said Tom Cooley, dean of New York University's Stern School of Business.

Miura's farm illustrates the kind of agricultural revolution needed to significantly boost self-sufficiency.

Masayuki Miura and his wife Yoko started their project a decade ago by going from farm to farm collecting samples and seeds of heirloom vegetables. As their elderly cultivators died off or stopped farming, the vegetables were no longer being sold.

The research turned up mild purple chili peppers, red okra, and a plethora of tubers, such as the carrot-shaped "yamato" potato, and the "busho" potato, which looks more like an abstract sculpture--with finger-like bulbs jutting out from its center--than a food.

Nowadays, the Miuras grow some 200 different varieties of vegetables and fruits on their farm. They produce natural fertilizer by composting leftovers from the restaurant and collecting waste from their three goats. They use no pesticides, and green figs can be pulled from their trees and eaten on the spot.

"You know, the old Japanese name for a farm was 'a hundred varieties."' Miura said. "But today, there's no farmer who grows 100 varieties. Now it's only pumpkins, only cucumbers, only rice."

Three years ago they started a nonprofit group that today has about 40 members, including like-minded farmers and artists who provide the photographs and paintings of ancient vegetables that decorate the inside of the restaurant.

While the Miuras think their experiment is unique in Japan, it dovetails with many other local produce and organic farming projects that have cropped up around Japan in recent years.

"I think we're entering a phase when the Japanese are trying to preserve their own types of food," Miura said. "You can't separate the issues of food self-sufficiency and food culture."

1/19/09
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Date: 1/9/09



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