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Japan is hungry for meat but domestic producers aren't feasting

Country's reliance on imports and Asia's rising demand spark shortage fears

Korean-style barbecue restaurants are becoming more popular in Japan among both women and men.

TOKYO -- Japan is becoming a nation of carnivores, as consumption of beef and other types of meat continues to rise amid changing lifestyles. Japanese today eat nearly 20% more meat per person than they did just two decades ago.

As the country's hunger for meat rises, steak restaurants are raking in money. Yakiniku joshikai, in which women gather in groups to wolf down Korean-style barbecue, are a common sight.

Yet, even as demand for beef has grown, domestic production has shrunk, partly because the country's livestock producers are aging, making expansion difficult. Domestic meat production now satisfies only around half the country's demand, raising concerns about food security and the future of the livestock industry.

The growing taste for meat is not unique to Japan. In China, beef consumption has risen 70% over the past 20 years as the country has become richer. Its imports of beef have jumped a hundredfold over the period.

Demand for beef is also rising in countries such as India and Brazil. China and India are the world's two most populous countries. Brazil is No. 5.

Back in Japan, the latest "food balance sheet" published by the agriculture ministry shows meat consumption totaled 89.7 grams per person per day in the fiscal year ended March 2018, up 17.6% from 20 years earlier.

Consumption of fish and shellfish continued to decline during the same period, tumbling 34.7% to 66.7 grams. Meat overtook fish and shellfish in terms of consumption volume in the year ended March 2012. Rice and other grain consumption also dropped 11.7% versus 20 years earlier to 243.2 grams.

The trend toward higher meat consumption is also clear from the latest household income and expenditure survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. While average monthly household spending fell by 40,000 yen ($363) from 20 years earlier to 287,000 yen in 2018, spending on meat climbed by just over 400 yen during the same period to 7,400 yen.

Changing lifestyles are driving the shift to a more meat-heavy diet. There are more single-person households, the population is aging and more women are working outside the home. There is a growing preference for meat because it is easier for busy people to prepare than fish: Convenience stores offer a variety of prepared meat dishes that people can buy and serve with little or no cooking. More and more barbecue restaurants are opening where people can grab a quick bite on their way home from work.

Domestic producers cannot keep up with surging demand. Japan's meat production rose 8.6% in the year ended March 2018, compared with 20 years earlier, to 3.3 million tons, only about half as fast as the 17.3% rise in demand during the same period. Domestically produced meat met 80% of demand in volume terms in 1985, versus 50% now.

Domestic beef production is in a particularly serious slump, falling 10% in the last two decades. Cattle breeding operations are generally small and the number of beef cattle farms has plummeted 60% from 20 years earlier to 48,000.

Japan's cattle producers have struggled to keep up with surging demand for beef, with imports making up a rising share of the country's consumption.

Imports are making up the shortfall. Last year alone they rose 6.0% on the year, exceeding 600,000 tons for the first time in 17 years, according to Agriculture & Livestock Industries, an independent administrative agency.

Frozen beef imports into Japan have also surged since the beginning of 2019 as tariffs were lowered under the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact. Although cheaper beef is good news for consumers, it is unclear whether prices will stay low, given rising consumption in other parts of the world.

If the global meat supply tightens, prices could rise, or supplies run short. In response, the Japanese government has earmarked more than 300 billion yen in its fiscal 2018 supplementary budget and its initial fiscal 2019 budget plan to boost the livestock industry.

Among the steps it is taking are programs for intensive management and raising of calves and breeding cows at communal facilities, and encouraging the introduction of information technology to assist with pregnancies and deliveries.

Japan's livestock industry policy has so far largely focused on protecting domestic producers as imports have expanded. But unless the policy shifts to enhancing the industry's competitiveness, there may be a backlash from consumers over supply shortages or higher prices.

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