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:
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.
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)