Release the rice: How Japan can ease the global food crisis

As prices rise on global commodity markets, U.S. agriculture policies that contribute to higher food costs are coming under fire &

especially subsidies for ethanol production. That criticism is warranted. But this country does not have a monopoly on irrational food policy. Consider Japan's rice mountain.

Rice cultivation in Japan is notoriously inefficient. However, it is an ancient tradition and, perhaps more important, the livelihood of a powerful political constituency. So the country blocks rice imports through a prohibitive tariff. In the 1990s, Japan agreed to buy a limited amount of foreign rice as a concession to the United States and other producers. But Japan didn't agree to EAT it: Instead, to protect domestic producers, it stored the grain, about half of which is American, in air-conditioned warehouses. (Japan gives away a tiny percentage as food aid each year.) The stockpile, which is separate from Japan's homegrown emergency reserves, peaked at 1.9 million metric tons in 2006. At that point, Japan's Board of Audit complained about the storage costs, so the government began releasing 25,000 metric tons per month &

to feed livestock. More recently, it has considered using the rice for ethanol, according to a report by the U.S. Agriculture Department's office in Tokyo.

This is crazy. Though they've edged down lately, rice prices have risen by about 75 percent since the beginning of this year, causing real hardship in the Philippines and elsewhere. Rice export controls by countries such as Vietnam and India have exacerbated the problem. The cyclone in rice-producing Burma might make matters worse. The Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations agency, projects that only 28.8 million metric tons of rice will change hands on international markets this year, down 7 percent from 2007.

Japan could help. Its stockpile of imported rice now stands at 1.5 million metric tons. That is enough to feed 24.5 million Japanese for a year, at current average rates of consumption. But since the Japanese don't want to eat it, perhaps they could let other people have at least a taste. Instead of turning the rice into animal feed or, even sillier, ethanol, the Japanese should release it to the world market. That alone wouldn't cause prices to plummet. But it might undercut the export bans other countries are trying to sustain. At a time when so many people in East Asia are going without, the United States should not object, despite its past insistence that Japan use imported rice for domestic consumption. It is in no one's interest for wealthy Japan to be the world's No. — hoarder.

"" The Washington Post

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