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Feeding Japan

High oil prices are a serious problem when it comes to food. Peak oil is peak food.

Industrial agriculture is energy intensive, requiring 10 kilocalories of energy to produce one kilocalorie of food. It also relies on oil to provide the fertilizers and pesticides for bountiful yields and the motive force that powers the tractors and trucks that work the land and transport the food. The odds are that we may never see double-digit oil prices again, and this calls Japan's food supply into question. Without oil inputs, how will it grow and transport its food?

This is a huge issue for Japan as its food self-sufficiency rate is only 40%, meaning that it has to rely on imports for 60% of its food. Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that the soaring prices of food commodities and oil has driven up the price everything you eat and has resulted in a shortage of butter.

In February, the Yomiuri ran a series called shoku shockku, or food shock. The current Japanese diet provides 2548 kilocalories a day, of which, domestically grown food accounts for 996 kilocalories. The premise was simple: What would it be like if all food imports stopped and Japanese were forced to live on an average of 996 kilocalories a day? A Yomiuri reporter took the challenge for 4 days. During the first 2 days, he would eat a diet of 996 kilocalories and then a diet of 2020 kilocalories over the last 2 days. The reason for the higher-calorie diet over the last 2 days is based on survey results that showed that men and women in their 20s and 30s restricted or limited their diets only to the point where they felt it would not affect their figure or appearance.

The reporter's diet can be viewed here.

Don't worry if you can't read Japanese because the pictures alone tell the story. Here's what he ate on Day 1:


-75g of white rice

-a vegetable soup of 150c of broth, with 40g of daikon radish, 10g of burdockroot, 10g of carrots, 3g of miso paste, and 1g of salt and sugar.


-40g of steamed Satsuma potato
-40g of squash
-40g of tangerine


75g of white rice
-50g of grilled mackerel with salt
-60g of boiled bok choy
-40g of vinegared cucumber and wakame seaweed with 4g of vinegar and 1g of sugar

The reporter's diet for the last 2 days was more of the same but with larger portions of everything and more potatoes. Doesn't sound very appetizing, does it?

He was shocked the moment he saw what he was eating. What he would eat that day was what he would normally eat in one sitting! He biggest complaint on the first day was the lack of flavor—almost no sugar, salt, or soy sauce made for very tasteless meals. He found himself mopping up the oil from the grilled mackerel to flavor his boiled bok choy.

Day 2 was more of the same, but since he's eating less, the flavor of the rice he has for breakfast starts to take on a more intense taste. By the afternoon, his body begins to feel heavier and walking to a meeting becomes a chore. He also has trouble concentrating as thoughts of his empty stomach take over. At the end of the day he weighs himself: he's lost 2kg.

Getting out of bed on Day 3 is difficult—he has no energy. He arrives at the cafeteria grumbling about how little food he's eaten only to remember that from today he's on the 2020 kilocalorie diet. Joy! His spirits are lifted knowing that he will be eating more. Although he has more on his plate, it's still bland and finds himself yearning for butter for his potato. He goes to the bathroom for the first time in 3 days. He also weighs himself again, but his weigh has not changed.

Things are looking up on Day 4 because the end of the experiment is near. He takes a picture of his final breakfast and notices how the potato stands out. It tastes good, too. Lunch is potatoes with a tangerine on the side. He's embarrassed to carry his tray in the cafeteria. It's tough eating nothing but potatoes day in and day out, but the lowly potato has provided sustenance for many civilizations in tough times. He realizes that his higher-calorie diet has given him more energy and walking up and down inclines in no longer a problem. It's more potatoes for dinner with a little yellowtail. He eats slowly and his plates are licked clean.

It was only 4 days but it felt longer. His conclusions:

  1. Two days of the 996 kilocalorie diet was all he could take.
  2. Eating became more about feeling full rather than enoying the food.
  3. The 2020 kilocalorie was definitely doable, but the downside was having to eat a lot of potatoes.
  4. We need to think seriously about food. Leaving uneaten food on one's plate is a crime.

A nutritionist gave her analysis of the diet. The 996 kilocalorie diet is barely enough for a 1-2 year old child. The 2020 kilocalorie diet has more energy, but is deficient due to the absence of animal proteins and oil. The lack of fat would cause many of the body's physiological functions to decrease. In children, it would manifest itself as stunted growth. The lack of dietary cholesterol also can lead to weaker blood vessels which in turn can lead to strokes. For an adult, the diet only provides two thirds of the required protein and half of the needed calcium.

The 996 kilocalorie diet stands out for its lack of vitamin B1. While eating brown or unpolished rice can make up for much of the deficiency, it's still not enough. The nutritionist adds that a lack of vitamin B1 can lead to beriberi and heart failure.

The food system Japan has is showing signs of faltering under continued high oil prices. High fuel prices have prevented Japan's squid boat fleet from fishing. The tuna fishermen might be next to keep their boats in port. The Asahi Shimbun also ran story about how the price of fertilizer will double in July due to higher prices for phosphorus and nitrogen. According to the article, this is the largest price increase since the first oil crisis. Japan must also import the phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium for its fertilizer, but finds itself competing with the high demand for these materials by China and India. While China is a major producers of phosphorous, it has placed export restrictions on it to ensure it can meet its own domestic needs.

If high oil prices persist, Japan will have a difficult time feeding itself. Without some revolution in Japanese agriculture, modern methods are untenable without cheap oil inputs. It will face problems far more serious than fewer sushi shops and less food on supermarket shelves.

6/20: Updated with English translation of the article.

Asahi Shimbun article

Prices of chemical fertilizers will increase in July by 50 to 100 percent--the largest hike ever--leading to more expensive farm products, the nation's largest agricultural association said.

The price increase has been necessitated by higher costs of raw materials, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, sources said.

The National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (Zen-Noh), which has about a 60-percent share of the market for chemical fertilizers in Japan, is expected to announce the rate of price hike soon. But it does not make public the prices of fertilizers themselves.

According to data from the agriculture ministry and other organizations, a high-level compound chemical fertilizer cost about 2,100 yen per 20 kilograms in 2006. If the price is doubled, it will exceed 4,000 yen.

Farmers will be hurt by the higher prices of fertilizers, which account for 10 percent of their production costs, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The extra costs will likely be passed on to consumers.

This will be the fifth consecutive year in which Zen-Noh, which revises fertilizer prices every July, will raise the costs.

But the next increase will dwarf even the 1973 hike, when prices shot up by 30 to 40 percent amid the first oil crisis.

Demand for fertilizers has soared around the world, caused in part by growing demand for food in countries such as China and India. The prices of the three main materials for chemical fertilizers--phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium--have risen globally.

Japan imports almost all the materials for chemical fertilizers. China, a major producer of phosphorus ores, restricts its exports by imposing an export tax to secure a stable supply for domestic use.(IHT/Asahi: June 20,2008)


perhaps japan should rethink its insistence on subsiding farmers and slapping extravagantly high tariffs on imported foodstuffs. let's face it, 2000 yen for a watermelon has nothing to do with oil. the same watermelon is retailing at 2$ in the northern US and it's subject to a much greater transportation distance.

remember about a year ago they were saying there will be no more tuna in 50 years?...(yes i went out and bought a skid of tuna too) i am finding out about the crazy amounts of mercury in the damn stuff...maybe my traditional childhood lunch of milk, lightly toasted and buttered tuna sambich, and corn chips will have to go the way of the dodo.

lets see...poisonous...endangered...expensive..its Charlie's dream reprieve.

I don't think the problem is about tariffs. If there is a problem with the world food supply, nobody will be importing their way out the crisis. That's the problem in a nutshell: In a crisis, Japan will have nowhere to turn to but itself.

The ridiculous prices you mention prove that people are really out of touch as to the precarious situation Japan is in. There has been rioting over shortages and hoarding while Japan sells Yubari melons for 2.5 million yen and tuna for 20 million yen.

When more serious food problems start hitting Japan, you can bet there will be massive hoarding much like when the public freaked out and bought tissue paper during the oil crises of the 1970s.


Subsidize farmers too.

But you're right, lets single out Japan.

you're quite right, they do subsidise farmers. Subsidies are used to bring price of domestic food down everywhere but japan. American, Australian et al consumers aren't taken in by "our carrots taste so much better than foreign carrots and are therefore worth the price of truffles" nonsense; they'll buy whichever is cheapest. I fed california nishiki rice to my j friends and they were shocked when I told them later it wasn't Japanese.

i like the cut of your jib!

The 6/20 Asahi article presents good, sobering information and gets to the heart of the matter. The 6/19 Yomiuri article was utter garbage.

Re: the Yomiuri "experiment," yes, locally produced foodstuffs count for just 39% of what Japan typically consumes, and that's a big problem, but the resulting 996 calories/day is an AVERAGE of total intake with an assumed pattern of food consumption. Applying that figure as an across-the-board restriction is just silly, because it's possible to get your entire caloric intake from locally produced foodstuffs provided you do the shopping and preparation yourself. Rice, vegetables, tofu, fish, etc. are produced locally, and on the level of the household consumer, it's possible to subsist on these exclusively. A cessation of imports won't make these things go away. Scarce, maybe, but not suddenly absent.

(Also, who was the boner who thought up that reporter's diet? Not enough protein, too much sodium and a serious hard-on for potatoes.)

"Leaving uneaten food on one's plate is a crime."

Genius. Then stop going to restaurants and stop buying convenience store pre-prepared foods, where you're contributing to a cycle of food waste where what gets left over or unsold gets thrown away. Learn to shop and cook for yourself, you idiot child.

Cheers to Shawn for translating the Yomiuri article, but the logical gaps and sheer naievity of it were maddening. Reporter Mikaido's gorging himself prior to the experiment, and his comment in the follow-up section, "Many readers are of the opinion that we should re-evaluate Japanese cuisine, with rice as the center point, but during this four-day experiment, I myself found I wanted to eat some ramen or pasta" show that in the end, he didn't have a clue what he was even doing any of this for.

Reporter Mikaido's gorging himself prior to the experiment, and his comment in the follow-up section, "Many readers are of the opinion that we should re-evaluate Japanese cuisine, with rice as the center point, but during this four-day experiment, I myself found I wanted to eat some ramen or pasta" show that in the end, he didn't have a clue what he was even doing any of this for.

Uncle Anon ,

Thanks for your comments and for pointing this out. I simply gleaned the juicy bits of the report rather than doing a straight translation.

The reporter is clueless, and it makes me wonder how pervasive this thinking in the general public is. What will the reaction be when a more substantial foodstuff disappears from the shelves?


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