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Japan ruling party struggles to balance agricultural reform, protection

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, instructs government and ruling coalition officials to come up with steps to deal with the TPP on Wednesday.

TOKYO -- The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is facing a delicate balancing act of building a vibrant agricultural sector that can withstand overseas competition and appeasing the farm voters it relies on for national elections.

     The party launched on Wednesday a task force charged with devising measures to blunt the impact of the recently agreed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

     "We will consider comprehensive policies to ensure that the TPP leads to true economic and regional revitalization and to dispel the people's concerns," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a meeting of government and ruling coalition officials.

     The government plans to compile a fiscal 2015 supplementary budget that includes farm assistance programs. Their scope and details will be worked out within the ruling coalition.

     To avoid criticism of pork-barrel spending, the task force is staffed with members that do not have ties to farm interests. Headed by policy chief Tomomi Inada, the group also includes former Agriculture Minister Koya Nishikawa and Shinjiro Koizumi, a former parliamentary vice minister for reconstruction. Nishikawa, along with former vice farm minister Takamori Yoshikawa, has spearheaded efforts to end the rice-production-adjustment program and farm co-op reform. 

     The group will base its discussion on a report drawn up in July by top LDP officials following a tour of farms in Tottori, Akita and Fukui prefectures. 

     There are two central themes in the report. The first is the need to strengthen the competitiveness of domestic products. Proposals include providing financial support to farms that want to expand acreage and increasing subsidies to growers of fruit and vegetables that are popular overseas.

     The second is how to protect farmers. One proposal calls for ensuring sufficient income for rice farmers by encouraging them to shift from growing rice for human consumption to that for animal feed, which would lift rice prices. Rice farmers account for some 1.15 million of the roughly 2.5 million farmers in Japan, making up the core of LDP supporters.

     Finding the right balance between these two policies is the hard part. Many LDP lawmakers argue that the TPP represents the biggest challenge to domestic agriculture since the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations held under the auspices of GATT in the 1990s. Back then, Japan was pressured to partially open its rice market and lower tariffs on farm products, and the ruling coalition devised spending measures that totaled 6.01 trillion yen ($50.2 billion) over six years. But a large portion of this money went to farm-related public works projects, construction of hot springs facilities and other projects that many experts say did not really help farmers.


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