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Optional program may help Japan's farmers

TOKYO -- Agriculture in Japan is experiencing difficult times. The nation's calorie-based food self-sufficiency rate is the lowest among developed countries. There are fewer farmers and those remaining are rapidly graying. The number of abandoned...

TOKYO -- Agriculture in Japan is experiencing difficult times. The nation's calorie-based food self-sufficiency rate is the lowest among developed countries. There are fewer farmers and those remaining are rapidly graying. The number of abandoned agricultural fields is rising.

As one means of reform, some experts are calling for a drastic review of the traditional policy of reducing the area devoted to rice production. This policy, which is called gentan, or hectarage reduction, was started about 40 years ago and is aimed at maintaining current rice prices and consequently farmers' income through reduced rice production. The government annually spends about $200 billion on the gentan system.

In principle, all rice farmers must accept cultivation reduction. However, about 30 percent of farming households reportedly do not take part in the gentan system. Even so, these farming households benefit from price maintenance through gentan. This system, in which uniform cultivation reduction is imposed, also deprives enthusiastic farmers of incentives.

Some experts propose that the gentan system be changed to an optional system. Farmers who accept cultivation reduction would receive subsidies, while those who don't would not get subsidies but could grow as much rice as they want. But some people fear that the proposed system could lead to a collapse of rice prices and require significant government spending to guarantee income for participating farmers.

The optional gentan system may not be a cure-all. But it is hoped that a review of the gentan policy will generate serious discussions on ways to strengthen Japanese agriculture.

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