TOKYO Japan, the world's biggest net food importer, should aim to become an exporter of its staple, rice, in the next decade, a member of a key government advisory panel said on Wednesday.
Masayoshi Honma, professor at the University of Tokyo, said Japan had to reform its agricultural policy and aim for global competitiveness in rice exports, a move which could ignite its agricultural sector and make it less import dependent.
"Japan needs to think that the market for agriculture is not confined to domestic but open abroad and if they take the risks, they may get the returns," Honma said at the Reuters Agriculture and Food Summit.
Honma is a leading member of the advisory panel, whose proposals have often been reflected in government policy. His panel submitted a report outlining strategic agricultural policies to Prime Minister Taro Aso in January.
He said the focus on rice would not significantly alter Japan's heavy reliance on imports of other major grains, but could boost the profile of farming and activate the industry.
Japan has set itself a target of raising its food self-sufficiency rate to 45 percent by fiscal 2015/16 to reduce its exposure to volatility in international prices.
Honma said the main obstacle to reform was the current government stance of curbing rice output, which clouds the future of farming as a profession and deters young people from entering the industry, leading to an aging farming population.
He said there are about 4.5 million hectares of farm land in Japan, a third of which should be used to grow rice. That would help boost rice production to 12 million tonnes from about 8 million tonnes now.
Japan exports certain types of beef and fruit, but these are a niche market, he said.
Honma said potential rice export targets were Asia and the Middle East as Japan is capable of producing a variety of types to accommodate the needs of consumers in these regions.
He said since submitting the proposals, reaction from the Ministry of Agriculture and members of the ruling political party has been muted, but queries from farmers and researchers had increased, reflecting a shared view of how critical the agricultural situation was.
Japan produces more rice than it consumes. It is obliged to import about 770,000 tonnes a year, or about 9 percent of annual consumption, under an international trade agreement.
(Editing by Valerie Lee)