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2014年4月17日 (木)

農協自己改革案 本業の生産性を向上できるか

The Yomiuri Shimbun 7:08 pm, April 16, 2014
Can agricultural co-operatives cultivate their own reform?
農協自己改革案 本業の生産性を向上できるか

In an apparent bid to fend off pressure from the government, the nation’s key agricultural umbrella organization has come up with its own reform plan. However, the specific measures laid out in the reform initiative, which aims to shore up competitiveness in the farming sector, remain insufficient.

The Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, the main hub of a nationwide farming cooperative network, adopted a farming and economic renovation plan in early April. The primary objective of the plan adopted by the union, known as JA-Zenchu, is to maximize farmers’ income. The reform initiative includes a plan to establish a national fund to aid new farmers and others working in the agricultural sector, and a number of other measures.

The plan also incorporates greater efforts to promote a string of activities encompassing the production, processing and sale of farm products, in what would amount to the creation of a “sixth industrial sector.” Measures to further encourage agricultural exports are also included.

Two government advisory panels, the Regulatory Reform Council and the Industrial Competitiveness Council, have said that delays in reforming agricultural cooperatives are one factor behind the weakening of Japan’s agricultural sector.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he will strive to “transform the nation’s agriculture into a growth industry.” He is set to put together a package of measures to revitalize the farming sector in June, including a plan to reform agricultural cooperatives.

JA-Zenchu’s decision to draft its own plan for reform ahead of the prime minister’s can be seen as an attempt to discourage the government from taking a controlling role in reform discussions while also demonstrating its readiness to commit to reform goals.

Contrary to its avowed enthusiasm, however, JA-Zenchu’s reform plan appears to be a conservative adaptation of its existing policies in many respects. Its road map for the reform target is no less ambiguous. The plan to set up a national fund, which JA-Zenchu touts as a key feature of its reform drive, leaves hazy the scale of the scheme and the purposes for which the envisaged fund would be used. It is unknown what kind of result the fund will produce.

The income earned by Japan’s farmers has dropped by half over the past 20 years. The area of arable land left uncultivated over a certain period of time, meanwhile, has doubled in the same period. These changes come as the graying of the country’s agricultural population is accelerating.

Multilateral talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact, of which agricultural market liberalization is a key focus, are nearing their final stages. Bolstering the international competitiveness of the nation’s farming sector is a task on which no further delay may be permitted.

Aversion to change

Many members of the regulatory reform panel’s working committee on agriculture had good reason to express stern opinions about JA-Zenchu’s reform plan, with one member describing it as “demonstrating lack of awareness of the seriousness of the problem.”

The regulatory reform council has raised questions about efforts by agricultural cooperatives to improve their own profits through such financial operations as lending and mutual-aid programs. The panel has said their success in these programs has done much to increase the number of nonfarming members of agricultural cooperatives. These members are treated as associate members and have been seen as a contributing factor to an accelerated decline in agricultural population. JA-Zenchu’s failure to address this problem in its reform plan raises further questions.

Criticism persists about what seems to be a passive attitude on the part of agricultural cooperatives toward proposed efforts to expand the scale of farming tracts as a means of promoting large-scale agriculture. Agricultural cooperatives have also been criticized for being halfhearted in their support for full-time farming households.

Agricultural cooperatives should rethink and correct their emphasis on better serving part-time farmers and associate members rather than full-time farming households. They should also get serious about promoting large-scale farming. Failure to do so means their reform drive will do little to improve agricultural productivity.

In directing funds and personnel for their reform efforts, agricultural cooperatives should shift their operating focus to treat households working to improve their farming efficiency more favorably.

A fundamental reform plan has emerged within the government. It calls for lessening JA-Zenchu’s involvement in regional agricultural cooperatives through revisions to the Agricultural Cooperatives Law and other means. The idea is to encourage each cooperative to promote activities on its own, thereby providing stronger motivation.

Agricultural cooperatives must appreciate the urgency of their situation more keenly, and take the initiative in transforming themselves into organizations capable of functioning effectively, while also changing their attitude and orientation toward the status quo.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 16, 2014)


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