Japan wants to boost farm-product exports

Japan should export more high-quality farm produce instead of selling it at home to protect the domestic market from foreign competition, the prime minister said Saturday. Though Japan produces enough rice to feed itself, it now produces only about 40 percent of the other food it consumes, down from 52 percent 20 years ago.

The decline has sparked fears that dependence on imports could make Japan vulnerable to food shortages if supplies are cut due to bad weather, war or a trade blockage. But Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Saturday that Japan should export more of its fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products, known for their high quality and often pleasing appearance, rather than selling its best produce at home with the belief that its superiority will keep consumers away from cheaper foreign goods.

"Japan should export safe and tasty food rather than just importing. Let's change our defensive attitude in farming to a more positive one, and spread the Japanese diet to the world," Koizumi said at a government-sponsored annual food fair.

He said Japan's beef, apples, strawberries and rice are hugely popular among gourmets around the world, and Japan should take advantage of their image, along with growing international interest in the healthiness of the Japanese diet, and in Japanese people's famed longevity.

However, agricultural products can be expensive to produce in wealthy Japan. The country also faces mounting pressure from its trading partners to dismantle government subsidies on farm goods, which critics say inflate food prices even more and keep cheaper foreign products out.

The government in recent years has campaigned to promote agricultural products to overseas consumers willing to pay more for Japanese goods' reputation for premium quality, and to take advantage of growing outside interest in the what many believe to be the health benefits of the Japanese diet. Such premium exports include well-known Kobe beef sold to the United States, apples to Taiwan and strawberries to Hong Kong. Demand for them has been rising, according to government statistics. Japan's apple exports to Taiwan surged by more than 13 times between 1999 and 2003, and strawberry exports to Hong Kong has more than tripled in the same time period, Agricultural Ministry figures show.

Also Saturday, Koizumi did his part to address concerns in Japan that an increasingly Westernized diet, with lots of junk food, is producing a growing number of obese children. At the food fair, the slender prime minister demonstrated his cooking skills as he mingled with a group of apron-clad elementary school girls to cook up fried rice. He also had a lunch that included whole-grain rice balls and miso soup, made from fermented soybeans, cooked with wild bore meat, reports the AP. N.U.