Japan’s PM has frog in throat as ecological crisis looms

The finer points of Abenomics are not lost on this guy. ippei-janine

Japanese PM Shinzō Abe has a problem, and he might end up killing an awful lot of frogs to solve it.

Shares are up in Japan, but everything else has flatlined: kick-starting the stubbornly moribund economy clearly requires big structural changes. Abe has a plan to deliver them via his “three arrows” of economic policy, and in this once-conservative economy, almost nothing is off the table. Abe’s first two arrows (more quantitative easing and new stimulus spending) have been well received, and the third – a growth policy – was announced last week.

This third announcement was the big one – what levers would Abe pull to free up investment and reduce sovereign debt? In the end, according to many commentators, he bottled it. Heavy on aspiration and light on detail, his speech knocked investor confidence yet again: the Nikkei has lost 22% of its value since its late-May high.

Abe is certainly not out for the count, but he has staggered and needs to keep up the momentum by showing that he really will deliver concrete, structural change. One very likely target, if some commentators are to be believed, is Japan’s rural agriculture.

Ecological hotspots

Conservationists have recognised for many years that agricultural land isn’t a biodiversity desert. It forms a key part of the “matrix” – that vast majority of the landscape that exists outside nature reserves and in which many of the world’s species have to survive. Working out how to influence and manage the matrix for biodiversity is one of conservation’s big challenges.

In Japan, rice paddies and their surrounding satoyama landscapes cover about 20% of the land surface - about all that is suitable for cultivation. Agriculture has shaped these landscapes over a couple of millennia, and as human needs changed, so did the satoyama. Today the steep slopes have light woodlands, which until the 1970s were regularly foraged for food and medicine, and coppiced for fuel and building materials. In the valley bottoms, streams are maintained to irrigate the rice fields; these are interspersed with mown grass dikes (aze) and paths, arable and livestock fields, and settlements.

Mitsubishi’s next great investment? St Stev

Small scale clear-cutting makes for a forest of diverse ages. Mowing, coppicing, digging, and litter removal actually increase plant biodiversity. Paddy field margins, streams and drainage swamps all harbour distinct communities of plants and animals. And perhaps most importantly, satoyama is a very connected landscape – one that’s easy for animals and plants to disperse through. This all adds up to a network of more-or-less managed tiny habitats, and the diversity of species that thrives within them is extraordinary. Hundreds of plant species, 39 species of dragonfly, and 17 species of frogs and salamanders – several unique to Japan and globally endangered – rely on satoyama. One half of all endangered species hotspots in Japan are found there.

But it would be wrong to think of satoyama as an agrarian paradise for wildlife and people. Japan’s huge 20th century urbanisation consumed much of it, and changing demography took people away from what was left. Fewer people meant much less coppicing and forestry. Those who remained were older, and placed more reliance on heavy machinery, pesticides and herbicides. No one likes hand strimming an aze dike on their own when a herbicide spray is available, especially not if they’re in their seventies. These changes, plus the widespread concreting of irrigation canals, have lead to a precipitous decline in many satoyama species.

Agricultural protection

Agriculture is now less than 1% of Japan’s GDP, and employs less than 3% of the population. The OECD notes that the average rice farm is about the size of a rugby pitch and is farmed, part time, by a couple over the age of 70 who have an eye on selling the land for development if they can. Heavy import controls keep Japanese food on Japanese tables, but it’s expensive. Only 8.5% of the national rice stock can be imported, with anything above this level taxed at an eye-watering 780%.

If you’re a bank or industrial conglomerate in Japan, you can’t buy a farm. Agricultural land ownership is limited by law to individuals who commit to farm 150 days a year, and to agricultural firms and collectives who are not permitted to do anything else. This, plus the tariff protection from global prices, means farm household incomes are actually higher than non-farming households – an extraordinary state of affairs that is supported by state subsidies to the tune of 50% of market worth - even the EU manages to keep this down to around 20%.

The average Japanese farmer is over 70. TruShu

Earlier this year, Abe began negotiating Japan’s membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial free trade agreement. Any deal on offer looks likely to swap Japan’s agricultural protection tariffs for better access to the wider Pacific markets for Japan’s manufacturing sector. It’s a tough political choice. The lone farmer and his flooded fields figure strongly in the national psyche, and his future wellbeing is backed by the geography of Japanese party politics and a strong farming lobby.

But if Abe decides to show he’s not, in Texan parlance, all hat and no cattle, then there’s only one barrier he needs to break – the legal right of large businesses to own agricultural land. Without the 1952 Agricultural Land Act, major agribusiness and the great diversified trading houses, could buy out the aging farmers, demolish most of the aze, consolidate the small farms, and compete on price around the Pacific Rim. What’s more, he can do this by a single decree.

It’s an extraordinary situation. Japan’s agricultural policy since 1952 has produced such a head of pressure that a single statement might radically alter a fifth of Japan’s terrestrial surface within years. And the alignment of Pacific Rim trade conditions with domestic political pressure make the issuing of that decree much more likely.

Salamanders and pool frogs don’t usually figure highly in the political scheme of things. With such a need to keep the momentum behind what has been dubbed Abenomics, left to themselves they don’t stand a chance.

Big fish, little fish

So what can conservationists do? The answer probably lies in the corporate sustainability offices of Mitsui, Sumimoto, Mitsubishi and the other major trading houses. Close engagement, lobbying, and constant delivery of the business case for biodiversity might pay handsome dividends.

Targeted chemical application, tailored field margins, connectivity planning: there’s a lot of best practice out there already, and it should be possible to minimize the harm that wide-scale industrialisation might bring. Remembering the conservation negatives of small-scale farming – the rampant herbicide use, the abandoned forests, the sterile concrete streams – might be good too. If the demand for agricultural land isn’t immediately all-consuming, there might be opportunity for what some ecologists have called “activation” of the satoyama – Kibbutz-like volunteer farms to allow young urbanites to reconnect with their agricultural heritage, or low-impact local business that buy the products of well-managed satoyama landscapes such as compost, biofuel stock or artisanal foodstuffs.

As conservationists we swim in waters among bigger fish than ourselves, and we can change their course less than we would like. In this case, accepting change and acting early to shape intensive agriculture may yet leave a little room for those frogs. But European conservationists should watch Japan closely: any radical revision of the Common Agricultural Policy could produce similar problems, and on a similar scale.

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