Cows know nothing of economics. Glut or dearth, boom or bust, they lactate. Their milk flows into the economy and, under certain conditions – current ones, for instance – into drainage ditches. It’s a cruel irony. The world’s hungry would be appalled. Japan dumps tons of milk every day, reports Josei Seven (April 27).
Poor countries face starvation; rich ones, food crises. Japan’s food crisis involves, but is not limited to, the dairy industry. Milk is so fundamental an ingredient that it makes sense to start with it: 85 percent of the nation’s dairy farmers are in the red and 60 percent are considering shutting down, says the Nihon Agricultural Newspaper, whose survey Josei Seven cites.
Broader in scope is a nutrition crisis assailing rich and poor alike. “What Japanese eat is not to be believed,” the magazine says. It deplores a spreading addiction to “ultra-processed foods”– food products laced with artificial flavors, preservatives, oils, fats and hormones that the human body has not evolved to tolerate. The body, deceived into satisfaction or shocked into submission, is passive at first, then restless, finally perhaps rebellious. Long-term consequences are thought to include heightened risks of cancer, dementia, depression and liver disease. We’re playing for high stakes.
Various causes converge. A butter shortage beginning in 2008 triggered government subsidies to jack up production – which duly rose, only to run smack into the most unpredictable barrier imaginable: COVID-19, which closed schools and froze school lunch milk demand. Scarcity was suddenly surplus. Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Fodder prices soared. Japanese farmers, heavily dependent on imports, reeled. Cattle starved, milk went down the drain, bankruptcy loomed, and looms still. Japanese agriculture hangs in the balance.
Even before all this, Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate was ominously low: 37 percent, as against world-leading Argentina’s 275 percent, the U.S.’s 124 percent, Germany’s 80 percent, Australia’s 207 percent. Japan’s highly distinctive culinary culture, bred in island isolation, survives on or despite dependency on imports. That’s healthy up to a point, dangerous beyond.
Case in point: Japan and the EU ban the synthetic cattle growth hormone BST. The U.S. and some 20 other countries allow it. Studies tentatively link it to breast and prostate cancer. American consumers have grown wary. Walmart, Starbuck’s and other retailers spurn it. What to do with the consequent surplus of BST-treated meat? Export it. Where? To Japan, possibly, Josei Seven hears from Tokyo University agriculture professor Nobuhiro Suzuki.
But Japan bans it. Yes – but doesn’t check for it, says Suzuki.
If that’s a symptom of the nutrition crisis, the core of it seems to be the cult of convenience that simultaneously rewards and afflicts all developed nations. As with food imports: good up to a point, less and less good past it. The proliferation of instant, packaged, ready-to-eat, easy-on-the-wallet meals and snacks answers the needs of people too busy to cook, too active to savor delicate flavors at leisure, perhaps too financially pressed to afford higher quality fare, perhaps solitary and uninterested in meticulous meal preparation for one. Measured and weighed, Japan ranks somewhere in the middle among prosperous countries: 38 percent of its diet consists of ultra-processed foods, significantly less than the U.S. (59 percent) and Canada (48 percent), significantly more than South Korea (27 percent) and Brazil (20 percent).
But it’s increasing – especially among the young, says Josei Seven, foreseeing a grim nutritional future. Economic development, medical knowledge and technological mastery are no guarantee, it seems, against malnutrition.© Japan Today