Japanese Rice Growers Sow Seeds of TPP Discontent


There are grassroots movements, and then there are the activists mobilizing against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.

These are not just rabble-rousers reaching out to disgruntled locals, they are rice farmers who say their crops will be put at risk by the trade deal being inked between Japan and the United States. According to a recent Bloomberg article, the trade deal may put at risk Japan’s policy of importing next to no rice, which as effectively given a domestic monopoly to the nation’s rice farmers’ union, or JA-Zenchu. The status quo is seen as a self-sufficient industry that has an upstanding reputation, due to the union’s help in feeding millions of famished Japanese citizens during famine in the wake of the WWII. Permission for more American farmers—who are growing for the fifth biggest rice exporters in the world—to sell in Japan is a very enticing chance for the U.S. to gain access to an untapped market.

But JA-Zenchu’s farmers aren’t so eager to relinquish their dominance on the Japanese rice industry. Bloomberg quoted John Block, who served as U.S. Agriculture Secretary under President Ronald Reagan, as saying: “The Japanese have always been very, very tough negotiators on agriculture issues. We’ve made progress, but rice is one of the fences that are still up.”

It’s not so much a barrier as an active point of contention: JA-Zenchu has orchestrated rallies with picket-toting farmers across Japan in order to demonstrate against any deal that might loosen their grip on Japan’s staple grain. In fact, a recent Tech Dirt article detailed how a thousand such farmers not only protested, but also co-ordinated a lawsuit against the entire Japanese government, claiming that “The envisaged pact would not only benefit big corporations but jeopardize the country’s food safety and medical systems and destroy the domestic farm sector, according to their written complaint.”

As steadfast as it may be, such resistance may not be enough to even slow, let alone stop, the TPP. (The U.S. Senate is putting up a pretty strong fight, though.) Bloomberg notes, for instance, that the Abe administration has already introduced reforms that will halt JA-Zenchu’s ability to audit and supervise local farming operations, a move that will hamstring the union’s ability to collect funds from member farmers. This, along with other maneuvers, has weakened one of Japan’s most powerful lobbying groups. Only time will tell how much rice JA-Zenchu will be willing to relinquish, and how many grains it will be able to store up in what’s sure to be a long season of globalization.

—Kyle Mullin

Image: Flickr user Patrik Jones, used under CC

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