Reformist Japan farmers urge free trade to spur change

Thu Oct 27, 2011 1:27am EDT
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By Linda Sieg

MIKAWA, Japan (Reuters) - Like other farmers on this fertile, coastal plain in northeast Japan, where patchwork rice fields stretch to the mountains beyond, Kazushi Saito knows firsthand that the nation's shrinking agricultural sector is in dire straits.

But unlike many, the 54-year-old rice farmer backs a controversial free trade deal that could remove a near 800 percent tariff on rice, aimed at excluding most imports of a staple that is ingrained in Japan's culture.

"Japan's agriculture is on the verge of collapse. If things go on this way, it can't last five years," Saito said.

Saito says the U.S.-led free trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), was "the last chance" to keep Japanese firms from falling further behind globally, spur agriculture reform -- and help his farming business turn a profit.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has signaled he's keen to join talks on the trade deal, which has Japan's powerful farm lobby in a tizzy. The initiative would in principle remove all tariffs among participants, including on farm products, and set rules on trade in a wide range of other sectors.

Here in the town of Mikawa like elsewhere in Yamagata prefecture, pro-free trade farmers like Saito are a minority.

Most rice farmers fear -- and rightfully so -- that removing the 778 percent tariff shielding them from cheaper imports would be the death knell for their mostly miniscule farms.

Tariffs on fruit and vegetables are far lower so the impact of trade liberalization would be much smaller.   Continued...

<p>Farmers attend a rally against Japan participating in rule-making negotiations for the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in Tokyo October 26, 2011. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao</p>