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    Virginia Postrel has a post and column today about consumer choice–as in, does the existence of too many options throw people into states of high anxiety over whether they’ve selected the one perfect flavor of Wilkin & Sons’ jam? By extension, the question becomes whether research indicates that privatizing social security and providing a profusion of investment options would decrease people’s satisfaction with the results they get. An interesting left turn.

    A story in today’s Asahi English version is also interesting, though it follows a more conventional consumer-advocacy script: providing choices to Japanese consumers in the produce aisle wastes resources, drives prices up by deluding them that lettuce is better from X Prefecture than from Y Prefecture, and sucks up fresh water to produce feed for beef cattle. And, really, next to smoking–which the Japanese do plenty of, anyway–what better evidence could there be that the Japanese have gone over the cliff of capitalist sin than they they eat beef?

    The weird thing is the measure that’s touted in the article:

    Takashi Shinohara, a Lower House member of Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan), has expressed concerns about the future of Japan’s agriculture. At a Feb. 22 Lower House Budget Committee meeting, he asked Yoshinobu Shimamura, the agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister, about the current situation concerning Japan’s food mileage.

    Food mileage is calculated by multiplying the transportation distance with the volume of food transported. The higher the food mileage the larger the load placed on the global environment for the sake of a more varied diet for a nation’s population.

    The agriculture ministry’s calculations in response to Shimamura’s query confirmed the worst: Japan’s food mileage for 2001 was about 900 billion ton-kilometers, the largest figure in the world.

    Since Japan is an island nation, transportation distances are expected to be high. But still, Japan’s food mileage is about 2.8 times that of neighboring South Korea. Compared to the United States, which has about twice the population and is the most affluent nation in the world, Japan’s food mileage is about three times as large.

    Of course, this doesn’t follow the usual line that it’s okay for Japan to be obscenely rich because its nature-worshipping culture makes it an inspiration to niggling conservationists everywhere. But the yardstick used strikes me as strange. Multiplying food volume by transportation distance seems to me to be a good rough number that could tell you…erm…some things that you already know, such as that Japan consumes a lot of food that’s transported long distances and doesn’t grow a whole lot itself (comparatively). I have no trouble believing it was devised by a consumer advocate rather than a research economist–or, more precisely, that it’s a consumer advocate who’s pushing it as an indicator that policy Must Change. The same volume of different foods can deliver different levels of nutritional value and can have different unit costs; transportation can be efficient or inefficient.

    That the Japanese agricultural distribution system is full of inanities is well-known. There are a few major federal ministries and dozens of agencies and public corporations involved–always a way to guarantee that decision-making will be distorted like a fun-house mirror and the amount of huffing and puffing involved in getting broccoli from field to supermarket will be maximized. At the same time, this is disturbing:

    Four years ago, when Shinohara was director-general of the Policy Research Institute of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, he said he was stunned by what he saw at a supermarket in Kagoshima Prefecture at the southern end of Kyushu. Among the vegetables sold was lettuce grown in the highlands of Honshu.

    “I thought it was such a waste to bring lettuce from so far away when it can easily be grown nearby,” Shinohara said.

    But that’s how things are in Japan. Many vegetables that have never been associated with one particular locale are now displayed at supermarkets with ads boasting their place of growth, often a prefecture hundreds of kilometers away.

    The availability of food from around the country could be one reason why there is so much waste.

    It’s one thing to question whether lettuce from Honshu is better than lettuce from Kyushu–but hearing that it’s a “waste” to ship vegetables from one place to another to see whether consumers go for them is a little unsettling coming from a government official. What solution does he have in mind? you kind of have to wonder.

    Since any moves by the government would be likely to create more regulations and hoops for producers and distributors to jump through, we can take small comfort in the knowledge that officials seem to be sufficiently baffled that they’re not sure how to proceed:

    One agriculture ministry official couldn’t find a specific explanation for the leftovers.

    “It may be because they were busy, or maybe they were on special diets,” the official said.

    Uh, what? People waste food because Japan is rich and the generation of grandparents who lived through wartime and post-war deprivation, complete with rice rations, has faded into lack of influence on most of today’s workers. Most people can afford to leave behind some miso soup or rice or even high-quality fish without feeling prodigal. It’s also not clear from the wording of the article whether the part of the food that’s pared away before serving was counted.

    Anyway, there’s more about the beef ban and about agricultural subsidies for those who are interested. The reporter doesn’t seem very critical, but the descriptions of how policy plays out, while abbreviated, give you a sense of how things work.

    2 Responses to “いただきます”

    1. Mark Alger says:

      Sounds to me like somebody with too little to do and too much time on his hands needs to be turned out of office and put to work doing something productive — like increasing crop yields.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      LOL. Seriously! It really is true that the lunatic fringe of libertarianism is well and truly loony, but you look at stuff like this and you can see how people are driven to thinking we should just dissolve federal governments and be done with it. I mean, it takes a special kind of person to see lettuce bought in from another prefecture and say, “Isn’t there something we can DO ABOUT THIS?” Yeah, calm down and have cucumber salad instead.