August 06, 2012

Kitchen Car


NHK's "Kitchen Car" (Kicchin ga Hashiru) is the gastronomical version of "Tsurube's Salute to Families."

Each week, the host (Taiyo Sugiura) teams up with a guest chef and they trundle off to some quaint part of Japan in a kitchen-on-wheels. There they visit the local farms and fisheries, sample the flora and fauna, and collect the ingredient to cook up a banquet for the townspeople.

It's a cute and creative show, though one that inadvertently shines a light on a far darker reality.

You can't help but be struck by how awfully convenient it is to have so many tiny truck farms scattered across the countryside. I'm sure that's in large part due to work of the advance team. But what you see on screen isn't too far from the reality.

Unfortunately, all this "localvore" goodness is killing Japan's economy.

The revolutionary land reform measures enacted in 1947 during the American Occupation successfully turned hundreds of thousands of tenant farmers into land owners and small businessmen (and anti-communist conservatives).

Half a century later, the political power bought with decades of increasingly generous government subsidies (far exceeding those in the U.S.) have kept politicians of all stripes from touching that third rail and changing laws that encourage monstrous inefficiencies across the board.

Aurelia George Mulgan (professor of politics at the University of New South Wales) sums up the downward spiral that has resulted.

Keeping small-scale farms in production blocks the scale expansion of farming by discouraging the transfer of agricultural land to full-time professional farmers. It thus traps the sector in a cycle of low productivity, low profitability, and subsidy dependence.

The Japanese consumer not only pays the taxes that go to these absurdly rich subsidies, but also forks out more than twice the world market prices for staples such as rice. All to support many "farmers" who would barely qualify as backyard gardeners in the U.S.

Mulgan concludes, "The direst prediction is that if the current situation continues, there will probably be no farmers left in Japan after ten years and [home-grown] food production will stop."

This pretty much sums up my bad news/good news view on the world economic meltdown. The same way municipalities in California can't adopt reasonable budgets until they plumb run out of money, Japan won't adopt reasonable farming policies until it plumb runs out of farmers.

The good news is that the way things are going, it's going to happen sooner than later and we won't have to wait long.

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