Skip to content

Japan’s Food Future

2011 March 22

Much is currently being written about the risk of radioactive contamination in the food and water supplies in Japan.  What began as a paranoid prediction last week has come true, with officials discovering low levels of radioactive Iodine, I-131, in milk and spinach, and low levels of Caesium in Tokyo’s tap water.  Although radiation levels are elevated, they pose little or no threat to humans by most estimates.

Some have expressed concern that Japanese food exports have been tainted by radiation as well.  In fact, Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council discovered radiation in fava beans imported from Japan, though this radiation was said to be harmless to humans.  In 2009, Japan exported $3.3 billion worth of food products (less than 0.5% of their total exports) while the value of their food imports was near $53 billion.   This is not a widespread concern, especially in the US, where Japanese food exports account for about .12% of our total agricultural imports, the majority of that number consisting of seafood.

The nuclear disaster in the Fukushima prefecture seems to be having little to no effect on Japan’s food supply, except to touch off anxiety that there may be a more serious problem down the road.  But this is not to say that the recent chaos in Japan will not affect the country’s food supply.  In fact, food is causing a number of problems in the Japanese economy, and food shortages are not out of the question for the world’s third largest economy.

One of the biggest immediate effects of Japan’s natural/man-made disaster is the loss of many agricultural and seafood exports throughout Asia.  Frederik Balfour of Bloomberg News lists a number of immediate supply changes going into effect this week, including a restaurant owner in Manila who began sourcing Wagyu beef from Australia instead of Japan, and a hotel chain which is dropping Japanese crops in favor of produce and raw foods from The Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and Scotland (note: the US halted imports of Japanese Pork and Beef in 2010 citing lax inspection standards for Japanese exports).  Although probably temporary in nature, these business losses could translate into slower economic recovery, and they are certainly causing increased regional competition and hurting many small farmers.

This will be an issue for the Japanese economy in the short-term, in the same way that the BP oil spill last year drove up seafood prices, ultimately driving up protein prices across the board.  However, there are a number of interesting developments occurring in the Japanese economy which make a long-term prediction more difficult.

For one, the Yen is on the rise.  It seems counter-intuitive that a country reeling from a disaster – which some have predicted will throw the world back into a recession, and which many agree will hamper world-wide economic growth – should see their currency appreciate so rapidly.  Anticipating a flood of capital into the country for reconstruction efforts (which have a projected price-tag of $235 billion) the Yen has soared, reaching an all-time high last week, and prompting the G-7 to intervene, buying up Yen in order to stabilize the price.  It is also odd that this sharp up-swing in the Yen should be seen as a threat, one which should force the world’s largest economic powers to intervene, but the reality is that this spike in the Yen is driving up the prices of Japanese exports across the board.  So it isn’t only the threat of nuclear contamination that’s dissuading many from trading with Japan, but the fact that the cost of trading is too high to be competitive.

Another consequence of the earthquake/tsunami disaster is the beginning of food and gasoline shortages, which will not end until infrastructure is rebuilt.  In many areas of northern and central Japan, ports and roadways which keep the supply chain open have been decimated.  Although it is too early for these disruptions to actually effect food supplies, they have spurred anxiety among many, causing a wide-scale run on supermarkets, despite government warnings that hoarding will ultimately result in worse food shortages down the road.  The most sought-after goods have been rice, bread, and yogurt.

Infrastructure is more important still because about 60% of the food consumed each year in Japan is imported.  With questions still arising about the safety of homegrown Japanese food (roughly 40% of the food supply) and infrastructure problems posing a threat to imports, there is cause to worry about supply shortages later in the year.

All this, and yesterday, amidst the instability of recovery efforts, the Japanese government promised Mozambique 260,000 tons of rice, worth an estimated $10 million.  Unfortunately, an act of altruism like this (an effort to staunch starvation in a poorer country) must be criticized at a time when Japan may be giving away stores of rice that it later needs to feed its people.  With grain prices predicted to rise later in the year, and rice ready to appreciate, this seems like a poor play, as giving rice away only serves to drive its price down.  Then again, this may be a calculated move by the Japanese government to control prices  so that by year’s end, the grain market might stabilize.  In any case, it remains to be seen how this will play out.

The threat of nuclear contamination of food is not the main concern for Japan, although it is the one that will make headlines.  The greater concern is food shortages caused by slowed imports and unnecessary anxiety about the safety of domestic agriculture.  If radiation levels remain as they currently are, there is little cause for concern.  If they increase, then of course this will pose a public health threat, and contribute even more to the danger of food supply shortages in Japan this year.

3 Responses
  1. March 24, 2011

    Radionuclides disintegrating in or near your body are never harmless. What matters is how many energetic particles hit you. If only a few, you are likely okay, but 10 exp(16) all at once and you’re dead really fast.

    Japan will not starve. They are mourning the deaths of 20,000 of their own and cleaning up the nuclear mess could easilycost them $50 billion or more.

  2. Colin Liss permalink
    April 6, 2011

    Enjoyed the article. Unfortunately, things have gotten worse since it was written.
    Radioactivity in the sea around the reactor site hit 7.5 million times its norm
    which was before Tepco started dumping millions of gallons of contaminated water into the sea (they just stopped this, and I haven’t yet found a final count on how much was dumped).

    Looks like the EPA will be raising radiation exposure limits…

    • Thomas Hintze permalink
      April 6, 2011

      Thanks Colin. Yes, things have gotten much worse…thanks for your update! I enjoyed your article about clean nuclear technology. Seems like the events unfolding in Japan are a reason to make a transition from the older generation of nuclear reactors to newer, safer models…

Comments are closed.