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Japan forced to eat its words on rice imports

(First Edition)

TOKYO - Japan's Ministry of Agriculture has an embarrassing problem with rice, writes Terry McCarthy. While trade negotiators argue at the Gatt talks that Japan cannot drop its ban on rice imports, the ministry is quietly making arrangements for a consignment of rice to be imported because the domestic harvest is too small to meet demand this year.

The official position is that rice cannot be imported because Japan must maintain self-sufficiency in the food staple for national security reasons. But despite huge subsidies to farmers to continue growing rice, the annual yield is going down. The strenuous activity of planting and harvesting rice is losing its appeal to the newly-affluent Japanese, and already more than half of all rice farmers are over 60 years old. At the same time Japanese consumers pay about six times more for rice than in Thailand, Asia's biggest rice exporter.