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Japan's dairy industry in crisis

By Michael Hoffman
Image: toshiharu_arakawa/Pixta

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

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I'm sorry but this article is full of it. So the author who writes about a butter shortage in 2008, and then directly jumps to 2020 as is for 12 years farmers were not making record money as the price of butter was skyrocketing. He just states that then corona happened and it was Armageddon. While I will admit fodder prices have increased, almost everything in Japan has returned to normal. Kids are back in school, so there are school lunches, people are back eating out, and tourists are here eating more. So farmers had a hard time for a while, who didn't. The whole dairy industry has been protected and allowed to produce what they want and we consumers are stuck eating and paying what they charge. No, I'm not buying it.

18 ( +18 / -0 )

I'm with tokyo_m. Check out the alternative vegan milks.

Don't worry so much about the numbers. All countries have to import some things. That system of global trade keeps people in paid employment in developing countries, pays for their education, healthcare and allows them to protect their environment.

It is often healthier to eat less-processed food, but processed food isn't poisonous. It's just not a good idea for it to make up the whole of your diet.

Watch out for activists and activist scientists, peddling an agenda. They will try to ban everyone from enjoying things, because a small proportion become addicted to them.

A cup cake or some chocolate isn't going to kill you, and banning them because some people are obese is fascistic.

Japan's biggest problem may be that rice is very labour intensive and particularly vulnerable to climate change. It may be the first staple crop to see severe reductions in supply.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

I don't understand why any grown person wants to drink the breast milk of another species,

It does seem odd when stated like that. I guess 'milk' to humans has largely become to be known as cow milk, for better or for worse. We've been drinking it for at least 6000 years.

I recall reading a story about a man who plucked a bottle of milk from his fridge and took a big glug only to be told by his wife that it was her breast milk, which made him gag. She was probably offended and their relationship never really recovered.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Cow milk is the perfect food for baby cows. I am not a baby cow.

-5 ( +4 / -9 )

I drink milk, eat butter yoghurt, and cheeses. Price of butter has gone up and the imported cheeses.

Modern rice growing is not that labor intensive with all the machines they use. Amazing quick in the planting and the cutting.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

Both goat and sheep milk makes very nice cheese.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

This article failed to mention JA's role in the industry. Back in 2006 there was an embezzlement and corruption scandal involving JA and several LDP members, can't remember what reforms were made, if any, but knowing Japan if there were any reforms it was probably only window dressing. Who sets the selling price for the dairy farmers, the farmers or JA? JA of course needs to line their pockets and the pockets of corrupt politicians so I imagine their buying price is cheap.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

In regards to BST, I pay a little extra to buy milk that does not include it. Overall, I don't drink a lot of milk. Mostly with my cereal and coffee.

I remember when our Mom brought back some dairy chocolate bars from Japan. Absolutely fantastic.

Cows' milk has evolved to be eaten by baby cows. We do not have four stomachs, and have more difficulty in digesting it than do cows. Still, in small quantities, it is probably OK. Looking at the history of how human babies are fed, it is only in the last 100 years of so that an emphasis has arose away from feeding human babies human milk. I suspect the producers of artificial baby milk, and the agribusinesses behind dairy farming, have had a lot to do with the transition toward non natural ways of feeding our babies.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Cows have got four stomachs.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Check it and you’ll be astonished. Finally and behind all stories is only one thing, the dance around the golden cow.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Cows have one stomach with four chambers.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

This article has the same meandering feeling as my students' essays used to. Often accompanied by a "poor Japan" theme.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Cows have one stomach with four chambers.

Yes they do, until they are butchered to death to be consumed by humans.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Yes, a load of tripe.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Japanese farmers are the worst hypocrites.

This article has the same meandering feeling as my students' essays used to. Often accompanied by a "poor Japan" theme.

Poor Japan is a fact.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Yes, this is a poorly written article with a very unclear purpose and sketchy information. What does the dairy "crisis" have to do with consumption of processed foods? This article makes no sense.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Septim Dynasty

Very well said!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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