Japan, one of the nations asked to slash its support for farmers at this month's World Trade Organization meeting, has a plan for its tiny, inefficient farms: Make them bigger so they can survive with less aid.
That means more farmers like Shigeru Someya. The fifth-generation rice farmer in a suburb outside Tokyo operates an 82-hectare (203-acre) farm -- about 63 times the average of most Japanese farms. Because of that scale, the 56-year-old Someya reckons, he can produce rice for about 10 percent less than many Japanese farms, a margin he hopes to improve as he competes with cheaper imports pouring in from lower-cost countries.
"We have to be ready. More rice will come in. More vegetables will come in," said Someya. "That's what I see in the future."
Someya is preparing for a future in which Japan's high-cost farm sector is exposed to more foreign competition. In terms of calorie consumption, Japan buys about 60 percent of its food from abroad, but international pressure to reduce tariffs and farm subsidies could mean even more foreign food. One goal of the current round of WTO talks, which will resume in Hong Kong Dec. 13-18, is to lower barriers in developed countries, such as Japan, to agricultural imports from less-developed countries.
So the country's agriculture ministry is drafting a proposal under which direct aid would go only to farms that are at least four hectares (9.88 acres) in size, about triple the current average in most parts of Japan. The idea is to encourage farmers to increase the amount of land they cultivate so they can operate more efficiently or to sell their land to other farmers and drop out altogether.
The plan could be in effect as early as 2007.
"If farms are larger scale and have higher productivity, this will allow them to handle competition more effectively," said Seiichi Kondo, Japan's ambassador for international trade, who has met with farmers around the country.
Until now, Japanese farms have been so inefficient that they survived mostly because of copious subsidies and high barriers to foreign foodstuffs.
Tariffs on imported rice, for example, exceed 700 percent. The barriers let Japanese farmers sell their produce at prices far higher than world market levels.
Between direct subsidies and price supports, Japanese farmers effectively get 56 percent of their annual income in the form of aid, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By comparison, U.S. farmers get 18 percent.
Japanese authorities also want to encourage more exports of crops grown in the country. At present, annual agricultural exports stand at about $2.4 billion -- about 0.5 percent of Japan's total $486 billion in exports. The agriculture ministry has considered ways to promote products such as its prized sushi rice to countries like China, where they are valued for their high quality.
Scott Miller and Miho Inada contributed to this report.