Posts Tagged ‘JA’

Rice is nice when the price is right

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Early birds: Harvesting rice crop in northern Chiba prefecture in September

Early birds: Harvesting rice crop in northern Chiba Prefecture in September

The main rallying cry of those opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotations, such as JA (National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations), is that Japan can no long feed itself with the food it produces, since its self-sufficiency rate is a meager 39 percent. But as attorney Colin P.A. Jones recently pointed out in his Japan Times “Law of the Land” column, this figure is misleading since it measures food consumed in calories.

In terms of production, Japan’s self-sufficiency rate is 65 percent. Moreover, in terms of total volume of food produced, Japan is fifth in the world. The point is, Japan produces plenty of food for itself, and it also imports lots of food. It is a wealthy country by any measure. However, its agricultural sector is lopsided in that it doesn’t produce food in a way that matches demand.

Rice is the culprit. Even without American threatening their livelihood with shiploads at the ready of cheap short-grained rice, farmers in Japan are already seeing prices drop precipitously. There is just too much rice being produced, despite the fact that the government still pays farmers not to produce so much.

According to Tokyo Shimbun the problem started in 2011 after the Great East Japan Earthquake destroyed much of the crop in the Tohoku region, a major rice-producing region. Consequently, rice stocks became low and the price skyrocketed. This situation lasted through the 2012 harvest. As a result, restaurants and prepared food makers cut back on the amount of rice they used. But by the middle of 2013, stocks of rice had increased to the point of a surplus, and a bumper crop was produced in the fall. But demand didn’t follow suit and the surplus grew considerably. Again, the situation remained unchanged and the price has been dropping steadily since then to the point where it’s lower than it was before the earthquake.

CONTINUE READING about domestic vs. foreign rice →

Lower egg prices bad for producers, worse for chickens

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Which came first?

Which came first?

Over the summer the retail price of eggs has increased anywhere from 20 to 50 percent, which is a significant change for consumers but also for people who are pushing Abenomics and its focus on reigniting inflation, since eggs have for years been seemingly been impervious to price changes. At the beginning of May, it cost about the same to buy a package of 10 eggs as it cost to buy a package of ten eggs thirty years ago. As the prime buka no yutosei (best “student” among product prices), it’s one of those constants people took for granted.

However, the sudden increase was not entirely due to serendipity or natural market forces. In fact, the price hike was engineered in a bid to maintain market stability. In 2011 the agriculture ministry implemented a subsidy to control the price of eggs. Because a sudden drop in price can have an immediate harmful effect on egg producers’ bottom lines and potentially damage the industry as a whole, the ministry automatically provides funds when the wholesale price goes below ¥159 per kilogram. These funds are used to cull egg-laying chickens in order to reduce supply and put pressure on demand, thus pushing the price back up.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, in May the price dropped below the designated line and the subsidy kicked in. Producers receive ¥150-¥200 for every chicken they kill, and the ministry estimates that from mid-May until mid-July, when the subsidy was available, about 5 million birds were culled. Not all were thrown away. Many were processed and sold as meat, for which the producers can earn an additional ¥20-¥50 per bird, an aspect that makes the system even more popular among producers since it rationalizes the process of replacing chickens.

Usually, a hen becomes productive — meaning it starts laying eggs — 150 days after birth, and remains productive for about 500 days. The dropping off point for production can vary greatly from one bird to the next, so whenever the subsidy is in effect egg producers get rid of those older chickens that are borderline productive since it is monetarily advantageous to do so under the system. Egg production is a relatively easy farming method since it is all about volume. In the past ten years the average number of chickens kept by each producer has increased from about 33,000 to more than 50,000, thus indicating the loss of small-scale farmers and the dominance of corporate egg producers.

Of course, when it’s all about volume it’s also all about controlling inventory, which is bad for chickens. Besides the horrendous factory conditions that egg-laying hens have to endure, their fate is also subject to capricious market forces, not to mention natural ones.

This summer was one of the hottest on record, and a lot of chickens died from heat stroke, so even after the subsidy system was lifted in July, the number of producing hens continued to decrease, sending the price of eggs to its highest levels ever. Moreover, one condition for receiving subsidies is that the producer not replace culled chickens for at least 60 days. According to JA, its Zenno Tamago brand, often used as the index for egg prices, was up by as much as ¥55 per kg on Sept. 27 compared to the same date in 2012. (For reference one LL-size egg is 70-76 grams, and one kg now costs about ¥225.) But chickens grow fast, so the price is expected to drop to its normal level by December’s Christmas cake season.

Home centers forcing JA to improve its game for farmers

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Komeri outlet in Sakae Town, Chiba Prefecture

The Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, more commonly known by the acronym JA (for Japan Agriculture), or the Japanese abbreviation Nokyo, has, in one form or another, controlled the finances and structure of the country’s farm sector since the early 1950s. That means not only does JA help keep prices high so that farmers can make a living, but provides farm families with everything they need to make that living, from loans to sales of equipment, supplies and fertilizer. It even sells insurance and does banking, under an exception granted by the central government. As with any semi-public organization that has a given field to itself, JA’s operations have become sclerotic over the years. In 2008, the agricultural ministry conducted a survey of farmers. When asked where they bought their fertilizer, 70 percent answered “JA,” but 80 percent of these farmers also answered that they were “dissatisfied” with the cooperative’s prices.

JA is famous for using a lot of middlemen in their sales channels, which invariably drives up the prices of everything they sell. In addition, various handling fees and distribution costs make the prices even higher. In a recent Asahi Shimbun article a professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture said that with the recession and the possibility of more imports coming into the Japanese market, farmers have become extra sensitive about costs and as a result are beginning to wonder if JA is really looking after their interests properly. Some have already started leaving the cooperative.

But where to go? According to the agricultural ministry survey, only 2.5 percent of farmers were buying their fertilizer from so-called home centers in 2008, but that portion has likely gone up considerably since then. Home centers, called home improvement centers in the U.S., are large retail outlets that sell everything for the home, but mainly supplies that homeowners need for things like repairs or renovations, as well as gardening and landscaping. The Japan DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Association reports that there were 4,310 home centers in Japan in 2011, double the number that existed in 1990. The home center chain with the most outlets is Komeri, who own more than a thousand. And while home center sales have mostly been stagnant since 2005 owing to the growth of other retail models, mainly drug stores, Komeri is also growing. The chain says it plans to double its present number of stores in 10 years’ time.

Continue reading about home center Komeri →

Japan Post would prefer to let sleeping dogs, and accounts, lie

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Sleep tight: Japan Post data center in Chiba

Since last year, the government has talked about tapping so-called kyumin koza to help fund reconstruction in the areas hit by the March 11 disaster. Kyumin koza are “sleeping bank accounts,” meaning savings in financial institutions that have gone untouched for long periods of time. The government says it needs at least ¥50 billion for reconstruction, and every year banks “uncover” about ¥80 billion in unclaimed accounts, 90 percent of which contain less than ¥10,000 each. For banking purposes the definition of a kyumin koza is an account from which no transactions have been carried out for ten years and whose holder the bank has not been able to contact.

Under such circumstances, banks typically move this money into the plus column on their books, which is why the financial industry isn’t too crazy about the government’s plan to commandeer the comatose cash. The banks’ argument is that even though they have taken over this money, if the account holder does show up with proper identification and other pertinent documentation they will happily return it; but they couldn’t do that if the government has taken it first.

It’s a credible argument, though Japanese weekly magazine Gendai points out that ever since the end of the bubble era in the early 1990s, banks have become very strict about closing bank accounts, meaning that someone who had not touched their money for more than 10 years would probably require a lot of paperwork to prove the account was his. It would thus be very difficult for individuals to access accounts of family members who have died, since those individuals would have to produce death certificates, proof of relationship and other documents. Moreover, an account can only be closed at the branch where it was opened. It’s assumed that a large number of sleeping accounts have gone untouched because the account holder died without informing his or her family of its existence.

Why the sudden jump in "sleeping account" proceeds? →

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