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Japan Speeds up its Agricultural R&D Efforts
By: Yu-Tsai Huang, Ph.D
For many years, governments of various countries equated economic progress with rising steel mills, factories and hi-tech electronic goods. These icons of industrialization have kept many nations’ economies on the rise. But fears of food shortages, crushing recessions, natural catastrophes caused by climate change, emerging new plant and animal diseases, aging farmer demographics, etc. have led country leaders to re-think and re-invent agriculture. New investments are now being plowed back into agricultural research and a new commitment to develop the agriculture community is being felt in many developing countries.
Japan is one of those countries whose commitment to change and development is very pronounced. After two decades of economic stagnation, the present government has approved and is starting to implement a blueprint for structural reforms. In a recent article of The Economist, it describes the efforts of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a leader who is serious to bring about huge structural reforms. In 2013, as The Economist reports, Prime Minister Abe “…launched a bold, three-part plan to pull the country from its long economic stagnation. Borrowing from a folk tale, he dubbed his changes the “three arrows.” The first was a jolt of fiscal stimulus for the economy, the second, an unprecedented monetary boost through massive quantitative easing. The third is a set of structural reforms aimed at boosting the economy’s long-run rate of growth.”
Japan agricultural educational tour
In May, 2014, the author embarked on an educational tour and visited some of the biggest agricultural research institutes in Tsukuba and Tokyo in Japan. The trip paved way for the author to observe how Japanese agricultural R&D agencies operate and how these can be dovetailed into the agricultural development efforts of the Asian-Pacific region. The following describes the various Japanese agricultural research institutes and agencies, its missions and operations, research priorities as well as possible areas of collaboration.
National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences (NIAES)
Established in 1983, this agricultural research organization traces its roots back to the National Agricultural Experimental Station founded by Japan’s Ministry of Agricultural Commerce in 1893. NIAES is dedicated to basic research on agriculture and the environment, and became an independent administrative institution in 2001. Through the years, NIAES has tackled many research works which contributed to the elucidation of a wide range of issues on topics like food safety caused by pollutants in the environment, global environmental issues, the preservation of biodiversity, and environmentally hazardous substances derived from agriculture. It pursues high level research aimed at helping to overcome global problems in food and the environment.
In its 2012 annual report, NIAES reported that for that year, its budget was 4.2 million yen. It also has a staff of about 164 and 124 full-time researchers. NIAES has eight divisions: 1) Agro-meteorology; 2) carbon and nutrient cycles; 3) soil environment; 4) organochemicals; 5) biodiversity; 6) environmental biofunction; 7) ecosystem informatics and 8) natural resources inventory center. Its current President is Dr. Kiyotaka Miyashita, a member of the FFTC Technical Advisory Committee (TAC).
In its five-year plan, NIAES has four research foci. These are 1) Interactions between global environmental changes and agriculture; 2) Investigation of variation mechanism of agro-biodiversity and the environmental function; 3) Dynamics of agro-chemicals and reducing method of their risks in agro environment; and 4) advancing natural resources inventory.
Currently, there are 10 research projects under NIAES’s five-year development plan. These are the following:
- Mitigation of global warming
- Agroecosystem response and adaptation to climate change
- Global risk assessment toward stable production of food
- Agrobiodiversity assessment
- Ecological assessment on genetically modified organisms and alien species
- Biological interactions and infochemicals
- Risk management of hazardous chemicals
- Environmental risk assessment of nutrients and organochemicals
- Ecosystem monitoring
- Agro-environmental information and classification of environmental resources.
From this background, it can be surmised that NIAES’s strength lies on its scientific research on environmental change and green agriculture, particularly how it quantifies environmental impacts such as heavy metal contamination on paddy fields, As and Cd concentration in rice grains, etc. Other international organizations and agencies with similar thrust can do possible research collaborative work with NIAES along these lines.
National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO)
With its main headquarters in Tsukuba, the NARO is an independent administrative agency which was established through the integration of experimental research institutes under Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. It is the largest organization addressing agriculture, food and rural communities and conducts R&D for the development of agriculture in Japan. With an annual budget of 58.2 billion yen or US$582 billion, NARO has 14 research institutes and centers with different specialized fields and missions spread all over Japan. It has 15 executives, 10 auditors, 2,629 staff, including 1,516 researchers.
According to its President, Dr. Tokio Imbe, NARO’s achievements are widely used by the agricultural sector, the food industry, agricultural machinery and materials manufacturers, national and local government and safety inspection agencies. It also supports the recovery of agriculture and rural communities in areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake as well as the conservation of rural community environments and national land resources.
Recently, NARO launched a new 5-year R&D period in its third mid-term plan. It has set tasks for each of the six R&D cornerstones which comprise of the following:
- Stable food supply system –R&D for securing a second green revolution and food safety, and delivering sustainable agriculture;
- Climate change and biomass –R&D for responding to global warming and forming a recycle-based society;
- New markets and future industries – R&D for creating added-value agricultural produce/food and creating new business through the fusion of primary, secondary and tertiary industries;
- Rural resources – R&D for the recovery of agriculture and rural communities in areas affected by natural disasters and the conservation of national land resources;
- Responding to nuclear accidents – R&D for the recovery of agriculture, the reopening of farms and the production of safe agricultural produce; and
- R&D for promoting agricultural mechanization –R&D for innovative machinery improvement that supports farming sites.
Aside from these programs and activities, NARO also promotes industry-academia-government cooperation with private companies in order to contribute to society with the results of their research in many ways. For example, their purple sweet potato joint research with private companies and local governments aims to create practical research results. These results are then presented in trade exhibitions and other similar events. In each region, NARO also opens the doors of their laboratories to external researchers from organizations or companies related to production, logistics or processing, and local governments and universities. External researchers can use their facilities and actively promote this system for their joint research.
In the area of information dissemination, results of NARO’s research have been shared with agricultural producers, related companies and government institutions through press releases, websites, symposia and seminars. The organization has also put efforts to directly communicate with its target clientele through hosting site visits and opening facilities to the general public.
National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences (NIAS)
When it comes to basic research, NIAS is at the forefront of addressing the issues of climate change and food security. It does this through development of functional organisms and the creation of new industries.
NIAS pursues fundamental and advanced researches which focus on the biotechnology of plants, insects and animals of agricultural importance. According to its President, Dr. Hirohiko Hirochika, during NIAS’s first five-year research program (2001-2005), the institute has successfully elucidated the high-quality sequence of the entire rice genome, developed efficient genetic recombination techniques for silkworm, and produced transgenic cloned pigs.
On its second five-year research program (2006-2010), NIAS focused on more efficient utilization of the rice genome sequence in crop improvement, particularly in the identification of agronomically important genes and characterization of gene functions. This led to the isolation of a novel type of gene that promises resistance to blast disease and the development of a strategy for incorporating this gene rice without degrading its taste. The institute has also succeeded in deciphering the draft sequence of silkworm and pig genomes.
Now on its third five-year research program, NIAS pursues the utilization of genetic resources and genome information towards the development of next generation genome-breeding methods, sequencing the genomes of wheat and a model insect pest, and development of useful technologies to stimulate agricultural innovations.
The largest basic life science research institute in the field of agriculture in Japan, NIAS as an organization, is made up of six divisions: agrogenomics center, genetic resources center, division of plant sciences, division of insect sciences and division of animal sciences. As of 2012, the institute has 242 researchers, 117 administrative staff and 493 part time contract workers including 31 post doc researchers. NIAS has 33 research units distributed in three centers and three divisions. Inside Tsukuba, it operates in four areas (headquarters, NIAES, Oweashi and Ikenodai), while two institutions are located outside the science city. These are Hitachiomiya, where the institute of radiation breeding is located and Hokuto, where lies the genetic resources conservation unit.
In 2012, NIAS initiated collaborative researches with 14 overseas universities and institutes. Topics included the identification and characterization of the genomic sequence of agronomically important genes and their utilization in breeding, genetic characterization of soybean using genome information and development of model pig for cholesterolemia/arteriosclerosis research.
Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS)
In its first seven years, JIRCAS was a national institute directly under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). The institute was actually established in October 1993, following the organization of the Tropical Agriculture Research Center (TARC), which was created in 1970. In April, 2001, JIRCAS was transformed into an administrative agency through a government reform process and a new research evaluation system was introduced. Three years later, in 2004, the Japan Forum on International Agricultural Research for Sustainable Development (J-FARD) was organized, and JIRCAS was nominated to become the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR’s focal point institution in Japan. From then on, JIRCAS was mandated to be the pivotal center that connects different institutions inside and outside Japan. In 2008, JIRCAS took over several agricultural development projects from J-Green, an independent administrative agency. Activities at the field level, particularly in Africa were strengthened.
Two years after, in 2011, JIRCAS started its current Medium-term plan. Three research programs are currently ongoing and are expected to make JIRCAS’s research activities more relevant to the world’s global research and development agenda. These are: 1) Environment and natural resource management; 2) stable food production; and 3) Rural livelihood.
According to Dr. Osamu Koyama, Director of JIRCAS research strategy office, under the statement of JIRCAS’s operation procedure, the institute should secure partnerships with other research institutes, prefectures, universities, private institutes, international institutes, etc. as well as enhance information collection and utilization by activating its function as a central organization of agricultural research in developing regions.
In Southeast Asia, JIRCAS has been implementing regional research collaborations as part of the Japanese overseas technical cooperation activities. For one, it established the Southeast Asia Liaison Office at the premises at the Department of Agriculture and Cooperatives in Bangkok, Thailand in order to expand its R&D network in the region. JIRCAS has also been cooperating with the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutes (APAARI), which has 21 regular member institutions and 38 other members. The APAARI Secretariat is based in Bangkok and JIRCAS has been cooperating with APAARI to strengthen inter-regional and inter-institutional cooperation since its establishment. Dr. Masa Iwanaga, JIRCAS President and FFTC’s TAC member, is currently the Vice-Chairman of APAARI’s Executive Committee.
Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF)
MAFF, a cabinet ministry of the Japanese government, is primarily responsible for the oversight of the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries in the country. Its overall function is to set quality standards for food products, supervise commodity markets and food sales, and to undertake land reclamation and land improvement projects.
According to the Fukushimadiary.com, the Japanese government (MAFF) has earmarked 22 billion yen to increase Japanese food export for fiscal year 2014. MAFF aims to double food export by 2020. Meanwhile, according to antaranews.com, the MAFF has also allocated US$600,000 per year for a three-year human resources development program in food-related areas through partnership with ASEAN Universities. The project was aimed to establish programs at ASEAN universities with contributions from MAFF and Japanese private companies, and also to provide insights on Japanese techniques as well as regulations in food and agriculture-related areas.
MAFF was also at the forefront of the “Food of Japan Campaign,” a massive program to entice the local and international markets to promote Japanese cuisine and its many food products. On the other hand, its International Research Division, together with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) embarked on the establishment of the International Network for Water and Ecosystem in Paddy Fields (INWEPF), to realize the challenges of food security and poverty alleviation, sustainable water use, and partnership.
The Norinchukin Research Institute Co., Ltd.
Established in June 1, 1990, the Norinchukin Research Institute Co., Ltd., is a source of accurate information on Japanese agriculture, forestry and fisheries. It does a lot of research work on food issues and the environment, all from a global perspective. It also provides information on economic and financial changes grounded in solid analysis as well as monitors and analyzes trends in the management, operation and organization of agricultural, fishery and forestry cooperatives, which form the cornerstone of Japanese agriculture, forestry and fisheries industry.
NIAES, NARO, NIAS, JIRCAS, MAFF and The Norinchukin Research Institute have very organized R&D programs geared towards Japan’s national food security. With the government’s bold steps to further attract foreign investments to agriculture, Japan is once more flexing its muscles to regain its stature as a global leader in agricultural R&D. A crucial step towards the attainment of this goal is the further strengthening of their agricultural cooperative movements, through the tightening of the JA network, which has provincial branches equipped with technology know-how which could be easily cascaded to the farmers. Under this development set-up, international organizations can tie up, liaise and do collaborative projects with these Japanese organizations, most especially in the areas of capacity building, research study grants, scholar exchange programs, and information exchange. These collaborative efforts could mutually benefit both Japan and the international agricultural organizations in the Asian region.
JIRCAS Newsletter for International Cooperation. No. 68. 2013.
JIRCAS Newsletter for International Cooperation. No. 70. 2014. http://www.maff.go.jp/e/
National Institute of of Agrobiological Sciences (NIAS) Annual Report 2012.
National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences (NIAES) Borchure. http://www.niaes.affrc.go.jp/index_e
The Norinchukin Bank Annual Report 2013.
Schuman, Michael. The New Green Revolution. TIME Magazine. October 26, 2009.
At the NIAES experiment field, Director Yu-Tsai Huang listens to a lady researcher as she explains a field experiment on “Quantification of Mitigation Options for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Agricultural Lands” Looking on is Dr. Kazuyuki Yagi, Principal Research Coordinator of NIAES.
Dr. Hirohiko Hirochika, President of NIAS (rightmost with raised arms) explains the operations of the Institute to FFTC Director Yu-Tsai Huang and Deputy Director Dr. Takashi Nagai.
Director Yu-Tsai Huang and Deputy Director Takashi Nagai met with NIAES President and FFTC TAC Member Dr. Kiyotaka Miyashita (4th from L), together with officers and researchers of the Institute.
Dr. Masa Iwanaga, President of JIRCAS and a member of the FFTC-TAC (3rd from L) welcomes Director Huang and Deputy Director Nagai to their headquarters. The other guy at the leftmost is Dr. Misami Yasunaka, Vice President of JIRCAS.
Dr. Tokio Imbe, (middle) President, National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO), meets Director Huang and Deputy Director Nagai