The Agricultural Free Trade Debate: Poisoning the Planet and its Inhabitants

Moen, Darrell Gene.
“The Agricultural Free Trade Debate: Poisoning the Planet and its Inhabitants.” (Published in:) Journal of Policy and Culture: Vol. 4. March 1999


Through the coordinated efforts of various social movement participants over the years, the Japanese public has been effectively politicized regarding the political nature of the international trade in agricultural commodities. With the occurence during the postwar decades of debilitating diseases in Japan due to chemical contamination of food, the Japanese are well aware of the dangers of ingesting foods with chemical residues.

The implications of the “free trade” debate in and outside of the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) negotiating framework have been publicly discussed in Japan through the efforts of various social movement activists, and their access to mass media outlets. The widespread recognition in Japan of the health dangers associated with “agricultural liberalization” is due, in large part, to the national network of well-organized grassroots-based organizations such as consumer cooperatives, organic farmers’ groups, the Japan Organic Agriculture Association, organic food retailers and distributors, and other groups associated with the organic farming movement in Japan. Movement activists have mobilized doctors and health professionals, biologists and agricultural scientists, and farmers and farm workers who have provided indisputable evidence from a large variety of perspectives concerning the toxicity of various agricultural chemicals that have been approved for use by the corporate-controlled World Trade Organization.

In this paper, I show how quickly citizens’ groups in Japan responded to the emerging issues associated with the anticipated partial implementation of the GATT Accords in 1993. That public concern with the health and environmental implications of “free trade” in agricultural commodities is widespread in Japan will be made apparent through an examination of the range of issues covered in the major English-language daily, The Japan Times. I will limit the time frame to the two-year period leading up to the signing of the 1993 GATT Accords which coincides with the period of time in which I was engaged in my dissertation research of the Japanese organic farming movement.

The Japanese government’s neglect of concern for the future health of the nation’s populace, by agreeing to implement the agricultural agreements reached in the Uruguay Round of the GATT negotiations has led to a questioning and reassessment of basic cultural values and societal assumptions on the part of a relatively well-informed populace. The dominant culture’s assumption that the majority of Japanese, as consumers, would only be interested in the issue of the cost of imported foods, and would readily accept more imports of agricultural products if the price was right, has proven to be arrogantly mistaken. To the contrary, a significant proportion of the Japanese people are deeply concerned with the social and environmental costs associated with increased agricultural imports into Japan and increased trafficking of food crops internationally.


Globalization of Agricultural Production and Marketing

With the decline of the postwar Pax Americana and competing imperial states clearly emerging by the 1970s, the United States is no longer in the position to be the primary beneficiary of international arrangements involving the carving up of the world to benefit capital. Although the 1993 GATT agreement will undoubtedly benefit U.S. agribusiness interests in the short-term, the long-term consequences may be detrimental. Barnet and Cavanagh (1994:229-230), discussing the concentration of the global grain market point out that:

Cargill, the nation’s largest privately held corporation, and five other grain companies have in recent years controlled 96% of all American wheat exports and 95% of American corn exports. The same companies handled 90% of wheat and corn trade in the Common Market, 90% of Canada’s barley exports, and 80% of Argentina’s wheat exports.

However, with Japan-based multinational corporations’ full-entry into the internationalization of food production and marketing, the U.S. dominance in the global food trade may be in jeopardy. Berlan, offering a long-term perspective on the international agricultural economy states (1989:217):

In recent years, Japanese capital has been using its financial and industrial capacities to develop agricultural production in countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Cheap land and cheap labor in these countries are used in conjunction with Japanese-made inputs to produce agricultural products that can then supply the Japanese market. In addition, when large infrastructure development is needed as a foundation for agricultural expansion (for example, roads, dams, ports), Japanese finance and Japanese inputs are available. This process has been emerging for some time. As early as the mid-1970s it was widely recognized that in the 1980s Japanese aid and investment programs in foreign countries would create an increase of several million tons of feed and oilseed grain on world markets and several hundred thousand tons of cotton. The larger share of these increases would be aimed at the Japanese market, and, consequently, U.S. producers, Japan’s main suppliers, would be faced with difficult competition in any effort to increase their share of the Japanese market.

Atchison, writing for Business Week (1990:52), warns of “a Japanese stampede to buy up U.S. ranches, feedlots, and packing plants.” Atchison gives as examples the Zenchiku Ltd. (a Tokyo-based meat importer) acquisition of a 77,000 acre ranch in Montana with intentions to contract with nearby ranchers to slaughter 30,000 heads of cattle yearly for export to Japan; the Farmland Trading Co. (a Japanese export-import firm) acquisition of Washington Beef Inc., a packer with annual sales of U.S.$200 million; and the buying of shares by Japanese corporations in Iowa Beef Processors Inc., a giant packer in Nebraska (1990:52).

Buell, Levine, and Therrien, also writing for Business Week, warn of the Japanese “infiltration” into the U.S. food industry, with Japanese companies “signing contracts with U.S. manufacturers, lining up joint ventures, and scouting purchases of American food and beverage processors” (1988:61-62). They report that Zenno (the commercial arm of Nokyo, the Association of Agricultural Cooperatives) jointly with Itochu, a major Japanese trading company, bought the St. Louis-based Consolidated Grain and Barge which owns 33 grain elevators and annually transports U.S.$1 billion in grain on the Mississippi River.

Other examples they give of Japanese food corporations “infiltrating” the U.S. food industry include the Japanese tomato-products maker Kagome Co. setting up a processing plant in California; Glico Dairy Co., a major Japanese milk-products company, building a U.S.$5 million grapefruit-processing plant in Florida; Naigai Chikusan, an Osaka livestock wholesaler, buying 50% of Colonial Beef Co. of Philadelphia; and Kirin Brewery Co. becoming the sole owner of Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Northern New England when it bought the remaining 75% of the stock for U.S.$46.5 million (1988:61-62).

Nikkei Weekly, the Japanese equivalent of Business Week, reported that in 1992 Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd. and Pilsbury Co. established a joint venture to market frozen foods in Japan; Taiyo Fishery Co. announced setting up the facilities to import frozen vegetables to Japan from Guangdong Province in China; Suntory Breweries Ltd. began marketing fresh orange juice imported from Florida’s Citrus World; and Calpis Food Industry Co., Ajinomoto Co., and BSN Grape of France announced they will start a joint venture to market chilled dairy products (Japan Economic Almanac 1993:121).

Sasaki, writing for Nikkei Weekly, reports that Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd. plans to triple its imports of canned tuna to 300,000 cases by building numerous production facilities abroad, including one in Viet Nam (1995:110). A large Japanese confectionary manufacturer, Confectionery Kotobuki, will shift cookie production to a plant in Shanghai in April 1995 (Sasaki 1995:110).

Thus, many of Japan’s major food corporations have accelerated their transfer of production overseas in recent years, anticipating the “successful” completion of the GATT Uruguay Round with global agricultural trade liberalization. Although most of the new production sites are concentrated in Southeast Asian countries where labor and raw material costs are much lower than in Japan (Sasaki 1995:111), their moves into the United States and western Europe may indicate an intention to capture a share of the processed foods markets in those countries as well.

At present, about 35% of everything the United States exports to Japan is food (Sasaki 1995: 220), totaling more than U.S.$6 billion annually (Oppenheim 1992:111). Japan is the world’s largest importer of feed grains, soybeans, pork and poultry; by far the largest net importer of agricultural products, with the United States enjoying a 40% market share of Japanese food imports (Oga 1993: 396).

Oga notes that although the United States is the leading poultry exporter to Japan with a 38% market share, it may soon be surpassed by Thailand, whose share of poultry exports to Japan has recently increased to 33% (1993: 396). In 1987, Japan imported 80% of all U.S. beef exports, 65% of pork, 30% of poultry, 34% of corn, 49% of sorghum, and 14% of total U.S. wheat exports (Usui 1988: 1).

Friedman (a “national security expert” at the Heritage Foundation) and Lebard, in The Coming War With Japan, state that although Japan imports 85% of its wheat, 70% of its corn, 80% of its barley, and 90% of its oil seed, it needs to open its rice market as well, arguing that its imports of cereals “totaled only 10% of the amount available on the world market” and that “the wide range of available cereals and the relatively small impact Japan has on the highly diversified export market make Japan secure in a free-market environment” (1991:164). They thus dismiss the validity of the food security argument made by those advocating national sovereignty and self-sufficiency in food production

Jackson, in The Next Battleground: Japan, America, and the New European Market, laments that “Japan’s rice market seemed as closed as ever, while exports of Japanese industrial products continued to flood into the United States” (1993:19). William Clark (“U.S. Japanese Relations in Focus.” Department of State Bulletin. April 1988, in Long 1990), in an attempt to present a more balanced picture of U.S. trade relations with Japan, states (1990:118-119):

At about $115 billion a year, two-way trade between our countries is larger than the gross national product of most nations. The U.S. is Japan’s number one export market, absorbing 36% of Japan’s exports, and Japan is our number one supplier. In return, Japan receives about 11% of U.S. exports, including $6.8 billion in foodstuffs last year, making Japan by far the U.S. farmer’s best customer. In fact Japan bought more goods from the U.S. than did West Germany, France, and Italy combined. We estimate that the $27.5 billion in goods Japan bought from us last year sustained over 700,000 American jobs.
Within Japan we are the number one foreign investor at $11 billion. American firms such as IBM, Xerox, and Schick hold significant market positions in Japan. Affiliates of U.S. multinationals had $80 billion in sales, imported $3 billion in goods from the U.S., and had $2 billion in net income in Japan in 1985. And right from Georgia, the Coca Cola Company took an estimated 60% share of the Japanese soft drink market that year…. In 1985 Japanese firms employed 208,000 Americans and exported $23 billion in goods.

The figure of U.S.$80 billion in sales of U.S.-based multinational corporations in Japan is an important figure to keep in mind since this is not calculated into the figures used by trade negotiators. Barnet and Cavanagh, discussing the operations of U.S.-based multinationals point out that (1994: 221):

… [I]t has become a fact of life that in the new world economy firms flying the American flag export commodities produced thousands of miles from the United States. Thus Philip Morris’s Japanese subsidiaries import Philadelphia cream cheese from Australia, soft white cheese from Denmark and Italy, and chocolate from Germany and Switzerland. The U.S.-based food giants have resorted to rhetorical flag-waving and calculated self-congratulation as the companies best able to redress America’s trade deficit with Japan. Their campaign to persuade the U.S. government to help them elbow their way into the Japanese market has been largely successful. But the result, while it is always helpful to Philip Morris and its U.S.-based competitors, often has no discernible impact on either stimulating U.S. exports or easing unemployment in the United States. Just as “American” televisions are made in Korea, so “American” cheese can be produced any place with cows.

Long (1990:72) notes that Japanese spent 1.7% of total income on goods made in the U.S.A. while Americans spend 1.8% on goods made in Japan. Bill Totten, the president of a computer software distributing firm operating in Japan, asserts that the trade deficit figures that the United States uses to justify trade sanctions and push for trade liberalization are based on fraudulent data since they do not include the operations of multinational corporations (1994:8):

The Clinton administration uses a crooked method of accounting to falsify the result of trade between Japan and the United States and concoct the $60 billion Japanese trade surplus it’s always ballyhooing.
The truth is that Japanese buy just as much from Americans as they sell to Americans. Per capita, they buy twice as much from Americans as they sell to Americans.
Clinton’s prosecutors cook up the $60 billion trade surplus they use to frame Japan by counting only products made by each country at home and sold in the other’s country. They ignore the products each country both makes and sells in the other, as well as products that each makes in third countries, like Mexico and Malaysia, and sells in the other.
They ignore all the Coca-Cola and Pepsi drinks, Levis and Wrangler jeans, Reebok and Nike shoes, IBM and Apple computers, Intel and Motorola semiconductors, Schick and Gillette razors, Coors and Budweiser beer, Prince and Wilson sporting gear, Dupont and Dow chemicals, Kodak film, Caterpillar tractors, Kellogg Corn Flakes, Oreo cookies and most other U.S. products Japanese buy.
None of these get counted in Clinton’s trumped-up trade deficit figures simply because all of them are manufactured outside the United States – as are 86% of all goods U.S. companies sell outside the country.
Yes, the Japanese sold Americans $60 billion more of products made in Japan than we sold them of products made in the United States. But we sold them $60 billion more of American products made outside the United States than they sold us of Japanese products made outside Japan.

Totten’s revealing example of how statistics can be manipulated to further U.S. corporate and political objectives is highly instructive. The “Japan bashing” sentiment aroused by such misinformation fulfills first and foremost a public relations function for U.S. corporations since more people are inclined to “buy American” if they are intimidated from buying Japanese goods, even if the Japanese product may be a better value or of higher quality. Generating an emotional response based on blind patriotism and racism also fulfills a need to deflect attention from U.S. politicians’ support of corporate interests that have nothing to do with loss of jobs and a lowered quality of life for most Americans.

Without doubt, the primary beneficiaries of GATT agreements are the major multinational corporations in the advanced capitalist countries, and the agreements should be seen as the products of big-business lobbies. With the elimination of trade barriers, small- and medium-sized competitors are forced out of business and trade between subsidiaries of multinational corporations is greatly facilitated. Big business interests in Japan, as well as those in the United States, western Europe, and elsewhere, have all been clamoring for trade liberalization in order to increase market access, decrease competition, and thereby realize a quickened pace of capital accumulation.

In Japan, the food industry is an oligopoly, vertically-integrated with major trading conglomerates such as Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo, and Marubeni. Overseas investment in the agricultural sector by these corporations has been increasing rapidly in recent years (Morishima, Aita, and Nakagawa 1994:153). To reduce production costs, the food processing industry and restaurants in Japan are increasingly relying on food imports (Morishima, Aita, and Nakagawa 1994:153).

In 1990, the proportion of processed foods in the total food consumption of Japanese was 48.7%, and eating out consumed 16.4% of the Japanese household’s total expenditure on food (Annual Survey Report on Household Spending: General Affairs Agency 1993:5). Although Japan imported ¥3.152 trillion (U.S.$31.5 billion) in basic raw ingredient foods in 1989, the yen amount of processed foods and foods to be processed in Japan imported in the same year was ¥27.878 trillion or U.S.$278 billion (MITI Industrial Statistics 1991:6). In 1991, the food processing industry in Japan imported ¥29.5 trillion of processed foods or foods to be processed for sale in Japan, about 10% of Japan’s total output of manufactured goods (Japan Economic Almanac 1993:120).

With the passage of the latest GATT Accord, Japanese supermarket direct imports were up 10.8% by the end of 1994 (Japan Economic Almanac 1995:142). Within the snack-food market in Japan, U.S.$3.5 billion was spent on chips, cookies, candy bars, and popcorn alone in 1988 (Barnet 1994:241). American and Japanese fast-food restaurants are expanding at an alarming rate in Japan, and McDonald’s alone had 760 restaurants in Japan at last count (Barnet 1994:235). Obviously, trade liberalization has nothing to do with domestic jobs creation or saving consumers money; it has to do with facilitating multinational corporate access to cheaper production facilities and newly created or expanded markets.


The Rice Issue and its International Socio-political Dimensions

Turning now to the contentious rice issue, I will show that with the opening up of the rice market in Japan (as well as global agricultural liberalization in general), the big winners are the big business interests, primarily in the advanced capitalist countries, and the big losers are the majority of the consumers and farmers throughout the world.

Under the concluded Uruguay Round of world trade talks under GATT, Japan agreed to a minimum access formula of gradually increasing rice imports from 4% to 8% of its annual domestic consumption over a six-year period starting in fiscal 1995 (Japan Times Staff: 1994:4). Immediately upon the conclusion of the GATT Agreement, an advisory panel to Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi recommended that the government purchase farm lands from smaller farmers and redistribute them to competitive large farmers and agribusiness ventures (ibid).

Within two months, MAFF announced a sweeping reform plan to raise the international competitiveness of Japanese agriculture as the ban on rice imports is lifted (Kyodo News Service: 1994: 4). The plan calls for the establishment of 350,000 to 400,000 individual farm businesses and 40,000 to 50,000 corporate farm businesses (Kyodo News Service: 1994 :4). The plan also calls for “liquidating 3.2 million acres of land currently under cultivation in small-scale, relatively inefficient farms, and the commissioning of new farm land for larger operations.” Another important component of the reform plan is the support for the consolidation and expansion of the food processing industry in Japan. The plan will be implemented over a five-year period beginning in fiscal 1995 (Kyodo News Service: 1994: 4).

The eventual liquidation of family farms and the expansion of agribusiness ventures in all areas of the agricultural sector in Japan have simultaneously occurred under the guise of eliminating trade frictions. Since 90% of Japanese farmers farm on a part-time basis, and with the anticipation that wage-laborers will be needed on the newly created agribusiness farms and food processing plants, the problems associated with increased unemployment levels in the rural areas of Japan is expected to not arise. That remains to be seen, but any attempts to entice farm families to sell their land will undoubtedly be a highly contentious matter.

At the international level, the opening of Japan’s rice market will cause the world price of rice to soar (Yuize 1987: 91). In an annex paper to the Petition of the Rice Council for Market Development and the Rice Millers’ Association, it was shown that with an open rice market in Japan, the world price for japonica (the short-grain variety consumed in Japan) would rise 233% while the world indica (long-grain) price would rise 82% (Bateman 1988). According to a University of Arkansas study, with trade in rice liberalized, the U.S. export price of japonica rice will increase from U.S.$229 per metric ton to U.S.$556 per metric ton (Oga 1993: 402).

In 1993, with an unusually heavy and prolonged rainy season in Japan, a rice shortage gave the Japanese government the opportunity to implement emergency measures to import rice to offset the shortage. Although the amount of rice imported amounted to less than 2% of Japan’s annual domestic consumption, the world price of rice on the international market, with Japan entering into the bidding, immediately doubled (Ohno 1994: 9). Thus, the rice price rise predictions cited above for a fully-liberalized rice market in Japan are most likely under-estimated.

Japanese consumers spend less than 6% of their total expenditure for food on rice (Annual Survey Report on Household Spending: General Affairs Agency. 1993: 5) so the cost factor for them is negligible, even with the domestic price of rice three times that of the (pre-emergency 1993) world market price. However, doubling (or tripling) of world rice prices for rice-eaters in less affluent countries may be devastating.

With multinational corporate penetration into the agricultural sectors in China, Viet Nam, and other Southeast Asian countries, rice grown for export may be too expensive for local inhabitants to afford. With corporate control of agriculture in many Third World countries, growing luxury crops such as tropical fruits, vegetables, and flowers for export to the advanced capitalist countries, many countries have been forced to import increasing amounts of grains (including rice) due to drastic drops in subsistence crop production.

Already heavily in debt and with scarce foreign exchange reserves, many rice-importing Third World nations (particularly in Africa) will no longer be able to afford to import rice. This will inevitably lead to increased malnutrition and poverty for the majority of the populations in many Third World countries.

GATT, along with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and other global agencies regulating and overseeing the world capitalist system, are not in the least concerned with the elimination of poverty and malnutrition, rhetoric aside. Their concerns lie with the expansion of the capital accumulation process by multinational corporations based in the advanced capitalist countries.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations created comprehensive rules and regulations affecting food and agriculture, with standards on allowable agricultural chemical usage and residue content specified in the Codex Alimentarius (FAO 1987). A special technical working group at the GATT Secretariat in Geneva is using this code as the basis for “harmonizing” member countries’ regulations (Runge 1993:211-212).

When the Dunkel Plan emerged out of the GATT Uruguay Round negotiations in 1992, the Japanese government immediately announced that it would consider accepting the plan on the grounds of “an international effort to remove trade restrictions” (Japan Press Weekly 1992: 21). The Dunkel Plan proposes to impose on all GATT member countries the “international standards” of the Codex Alimentarius on agricultural chemicals and food additives (Japan Press Weekly 1992: 20).

The Japan Communist Party immediately responded to the apparent willingness of the Japanese government to accept the Dunkel Plan (or a variation of it) in an editorial in its national daily newspaper, the Akahata (March 6, 1992):

In 1985, more than 1,500 people in eight U.S. states and in the western provinces of Canada who ate watermelons were poisoned and six of them died. The cause was found to be residues of the agricultural chemical aldicarb, frequently used on watermelons. In Japan, aldicarb is not even registered as an agricultural chemical, and if the Dunkel Plan is accepted, the importation of agricultural products which have been treated with aldicarb will have to be accepted.

The Dunkel Plan requires that standards on food safety be adjusted to “international standards.” Importing countries will be required to accept imports of agricultural products if the exporting countries verify them as meeting the FAO standards.

According to a report by Fujita Sumi, a JCP member of the House of Representatives, an ad hoc committee has found that by accepting the international standards, agricultural chemical levels five to ten times higher than Japan’s current standards will have to be accepted; Aldicarb is included in the list of “acceptable” chemicals.

It is only natural that each nation should have the right to decide independently its own standards on agricultural chemicals and food additives. If one nation has stricter standards than another due to a greater concern for its citizens’ health and well-being, it may provide an incentive for citizens in nations with lower standards to demand that their governments legislate stricter standards.

By expressing its willingness to accept the Dunkel Plan on the pretext of the removal of trade restrictions, the Japanese government is giving priority to U.S. and Japanese food industry interests, not to the safety and well-being of the Japanese people. The position that regards food safety standards as a “trade restriction” reflects the idea that “free trade” based on the market economy should be given top priority. However, agricultural production, which varies from country to country and regions within countries, should reflect environmental, historical, social, and cultural specificity, and is not suited to “free trade.” We demand that the Japanese government reject the Dunkel Plan which threatens the health of people throughout the world. [translation mine]

The JCP was outraged by the blatant attempt to dismantle consumer protection and environmental laws that were grudgingly enacted due to pressure brought to bear on national governments by citizens’ protest movements. The JCP’s assertion that victories gained by popular movements in one nation may empower citizens in other countries to fight for their rights indicates that the party recognizes the transnational potential of social protest movements. The JCP’s ability as a major political party to vocalize grassroots opposition and clarify the party’s opposition to any attempts to dismantle health and environmental protection laws in Japan, through effective and timely use of the media, allows it to inject a highly critical analysis into the public debate concerning agricultural liberalization.

Rapkin and George, argue that by opening up the rice market in Japan, the Japanese government will have the opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to exercise leadership in the world political economy (1993:92). However, they lament the influence that the Japan Communist Party continues to have on consumer movements in Japan (1993:67):

One of the largest consumer organizations, the National Feberation of Livelihood [sic ] Cooperatives (Seikyo), has strongly opposed rice trade liberalization. This stance may reflect the ties between some of its leaders and the Japan Communist Party, which makes a concerted effort to support the consumer cooperative movement (as well as the rice status quo).

Several weeks after the Dunkel Plan was unveiled, the Japanese Health and Welfare Ministy requested the Food Sanitation Investigation Council to set “revised” tolerance levels to cover 74 agricultural chemicals, in anticipation of increases in agricultural imports and the need to comply with “international standards” (Japan Times. August 22, 1992). The new tolerance level for a post-harvest insecticide for rapeseed is ten parts per million (ppm), the same standard set in the Codex Alimentarius . However, this is fifty-times the level set in the Japanese Environment Agency’s guidelines for use of farm chemicals (Japan Times. August 22, 1992). The tolerance level for an herbicide for peas was set at 40ppm, the same as in the United States, but four times that in the Japanese guidelines (Japan Times. August 22, 1992).

After the Health and Welfare Ministry formally announced the relaxed standards for residual levels in agricultural produce of an additional 34 farm chemicals, a citizens’ group filed two lawsuits against the ministry for endangering the public health. The attorney for the citizens’ group stated that the lowered standards for the use of farm chemicals were set to make imports of farm produce and processed food products easier, and by disregarding the negative health affects on the nation’s citizens, the Health and Welfare Ministry was not fulfilling its mandate (Japan Times. November 28, 1992).

The Tokyo Metropolitan Hygiene Research Institute, in a study conducted between April 1990 and March 1992, found that almost 40% of imported processed foods contain agricultural chemical residues surpassing Japanese standards (Japan Times. October 26, 1992). Residues of pesticides not allowed to be used in Japan were found in more than half of the foods made from grains, such as spaghetti, cakes, and biscuits (Japan Times. October 26, 1992).

One year prior to the announcement of the Dunkel Plan proposing international agricultural chemical and food additive standards, the Tokyo Metropolitan Research Laboratory of Public Health conducted a comprehensive analysis to determine whether residues of any of 52 designated agricultural chemicals were present in imported produce. According to the study’s findings, 8.9 ppm of the germicide dichloroan were detected in the leaves of American celery, much higher than the Environment Agency allowance of 0.6ppm. The study found the density level of the weed killer chloropropham (a known carcinogen) in potatoes from the United States at 4.6ppm, or 92 times higher than the Japanese allowable standard of 0.05ppm. The density of three kinds of organic phosphoric insecticides found in French chicory and U.S lemon peels greatly exceeded Japanese allowable levels, and some lemon peels contained 17ppm of a toxic agricultural chemical called carbaryl (Japan Times. May 22, 1991).

Parathion, which has been banned in Japan because of its toxicity, was detected in cherries from the United States and fruit from Taiwan. Deildrin and endrin, toxic organic chlorine chemicals banned in Japan in 1981, were found on pumpkins imported from Mexico. Officials stated that U.S. food safety standards are much lower than those in Japan and the number of pesticides in use much larger (Japan Times. May 22, 1991). Endrin, previously banned in Japan, is now acceptable as long as it meets the international standards set by the FAO and WHO (Japan Press Weekly. May 30, 1992:13).

When I visited the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries and talked with several officials there concerning agricultural chemical residues on imported food and the implications of the “international standards” scheme, they agreed to talk with me on condition of anonymity (November 4, 1993). I was told that there are 450 registered pesticides in Japan with tolerance levels established on only 100. They stated that if a particular agricultural chemical is not used in Japan, the Japanese authorities cannot prohibit its importation if residues are detected. They felt that conforming to international standards will lead to increased cancer risks and expose the Japanese people to health hazards they are presently partially protected from.

When I asked about chemical residues in U.S. rice, I was told that the deepest concern pertained to post-harvest applications to prevent damage during shipment. They stated that the United States allows 2ppm of methoxycholr, a chemical applied to prevent spoilage in storage bins, while Japan has no tolerance set because the chemical is not used in Japan; that the permissible residual level of malathion (applied pre-harvest and post-harvest) is 8ppm in the U.S. and 0.1ppm in Japan; and that the standards for chlorophrifos-methyl, a post-harvest insecticide used on rice, is 6ppm in the U.S. and 0.01ppm in Japan.

One of the MAFF scientists I talked with told me that if the Japanese rice market is opened by tariffication as seemed likely, the Japanese people will be subjected to eating rice with a much higher chemical residue content than domestically-produced rice. He added that because rice is not considered a staple in the American and European diets, and is seldom eaten, the “international standards” (established in Rome) allow a chemical residue content that would pose serious health risks if eaten on a daily basis.

About 27% of foreign rice samples tested by Yokohama University’s Institute of Environmental Science and Technology contained residual pesticides at levels as much as 18 times that allowed by the Japanese government (Mainichi Daily News. October 15, 1993:12). A Tokyo-based citizens’ group, the Japan Offspring Fund (Nihon Shison Kikin) commissioned the university to conduct the tests from late-1990 to early-1992. Residual levels of pirimiphos-methyl on Australian rice were measured at 3.7ppm, 18 times higher than the Japanese standard. Samples of U.S. rice contained 0.19ppm of malathion, double the ceiling of 0.1ppm set by the Japanese government. A Health and Welfare Ministry official stated that organic phosphoric pesticides such as malathion and prirmiphos-methyl, applied to post-harvest rice, are not used in Japan, and that in cases of chemicals that are not regulated in Japan, the exporting country’s standards would be used (Mainichi Daily News. October 5, 1993).

Clearly, health concerns associated with the importation of rice, as well as other food crops, both raw and processed, with dangerous amounts of carcinogenic chemical residues, are of primary importance in the Japanese citizens’ opposition to agricultural liberalization measures. Known throughout the world as avid readers and highly literate, thus relatively well-informed, the Japanese populace is well aware of the multi-dimensional aspects of the debate conerning the on-going attempts to further internationalize agricultural trade, and assertions by free trade advocates that prices will be lowered are often met with skeptimism and disdain. High land prices; corrupt real estate practices that create high rents and unaffordable housing; high education costs and unaffordable nursing care facilities, these are the concerns of most Japanese, not the high cost of food relative to world market prices. Grassroots-based debates concerning further food imports are centered on safety and not on prices. For the nation to be made totally dependent on imports of chemically-contaminated foods, including its staples, is unacceptable to the majority of the people in Japan.

Ohnuki-Tierney, a symbolic anthropologist writing about “rice as self,” states that economically, the importation of California rice makes good sense (1993:9), and implies that Japanese charges that foreign rice may pose a health risk due to higher levels of residual chemicals are greatly exaggerated (ibid:110):

A frequently voiced charge against foreign rice is the extensive use of chemicals on agricultural products in the United States. Shimogaito (1988:76-78) lists a number of chemicals, both insecticides and postharvest preservatives, and stresses the benefits of chemical-free Japanese rice. The farm union (Zenchu) picked up on this fear and produced a video exaggerating the harm to people who consume chemically treated agricultural products. This extreme tactic was criticized even in Japan (Asahi Shinbun April 1, 1988, August 3, 1988), especially when not all Japanese products are chemical free. They discontinued the campaign.

To cite one author and then to imply that all opponents to rice imports in Japan make the claim that Japanese rice is chemical-free or that agricultural products in Japan are grown without the use of agri-chemicals is ludicrous. To my knowledge, no such claims by opposition groups (including Zenchu ) have been made. To oppose the importation of rice with higher levels of residual chemicals than allowed by Japanese law or with residues of chemicals banned in Japan is not to claim that Japanese rice is chemical-free.

After attempting to discredit the movement opposing rice imports, Ohnuki-Tierney goes on to assert (ibid:111):

At a symbolic level, the accusation about chemicals on rice relates to the aforementioned structure of reflexivity in which the principle of purity and impurity is the single most important principle both cognitively and affectively. Chemicals symbolize the impurity of foreign rice and thus, constitute a threat to the purity of the Japanese self.
The controversy over California rice clearly demonstrates that domestic rice serves as a metaphor of self for the Japanese and their land, water, and air, for all of which purity is the essential quality. [Italics in original]

This type of symbolic analysis which reifies symbols in place of social settings misses the socio-political significance of Japanese opposition to agricultural liberalization entirely. The majority of Japanese citizens are opposed to “free-trade” in all agricultural products (not just “California” rice) for various reasons, ranging from health concerns and survival of family farming in Japan and throughout the world to environmental concerns and national food security issues. Although I feel that it is possible to make a symbolic analysis that incorporates socio-political forces and is compatible with approaches that recognize political economies and class issues both nationally and globally, to restrict a symbolic analysis to a “purity of self in relation to the inpurity of other” argument is overly narrow in scope and thus misleading.



Popular movements in Japan opposing global agricultural trade liberalization have little to do with the “symbolic significance of rice;” the opposition centers on citizens’ rights to health and well-being, and the economic, ecological, and socio-political factors are of primary importance in motivating people to act to protect their rights. Many of the participants in the organic farming movement in Japan have indicated to me in conversations that their opposition to an agricultural trade free-for-all is transnational in character, with a deep concern for the dire consequences in store for the world’s majority if free trade in food as envisioned by the GATT is fully implemented.

Sanger, a New York Times correspondent discussing the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) under GATT auspices, asks a pointed question (Wisconsin State Journal. November 27, 1994: 3A):

Will the new organization force Washington and the states to choose between paying penalties and changing their consumer-protection, environmental, and labor laws if it judges those laws an impediment to trade?

The WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) obliges each member nation to “harmonize” independent food safety standards with the “international standards” of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. However, the United States, although intending to enforce compliance with the “international standards” on other member states, has hypocritically exempted itself from compliance.

The U.S. Congress passed a bill before ratifying the WTO Accord which states: “No provision of any of the Uruguay Round Agreements, nor the application of any such provision to any person or circumstance, that is inconsistent with any law of the United States, will have effect” (U.S. Congress 1994). If less powerful states attempt to pass similar legislation, the United States will be the first to cry foul and threaten to impose trade sanctions.

Just as citizens’ groups in Japan have been quick to respond to the complexity of issues that arose during the GATT negotiations, they have been quick to expose the double-standards employed historically by the United States in its dealings with other nations. The widespread opposition in Japan to the latest GATT Accord, with its blatent attempt to further facilitate transnational corporate control of agricultural production and distribution internationally, has received extensive media coverage in Japan. As radicalized citizens of an economically-powerful advanced capitalist country, the participants in the organic farming movement in Japan, by calling attention to the international social and political dimensions of agricultural trade, are in a position to influence citizen activists in other countries to take action against the full implementation of the latest GATT Accords.

The heightened level of awareness among the Japanese populace regarding the social, political, and environmental ramifications of an intensified global agricultural trade liberalization will encourage more people in Japan to support the organic farming movement and its attempt to protect consumers, family farmers, and the environment from the onslaughts of monopoly capital. Coupled with their strong opposition to transnational corporate designs on the complete control of food production and consumption internationally, the participants in the Japanese organic farming movement are offering a creative alternative. The localized organic farming communities, the alternative marketing structures, and the redefined social relations and cultural values that have been innovatively created over the years show that it is possible for people working together at the grassroots level to take back control over their own lives (see Moen 1995, 1997). Such examples of successfully circumventing the structural constraints imposed by the dominant culture to prevent its loss of social control, may encourage others to take action along similar lines.



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