Some of the world’s most cosseted rice producers are feeling threatened by cut-cost and foreign rice for the first time. Grown in Yamagata in northern Japan, Uonuma Koshihikari has a reputation as the nation’s favourite top-brand rice but sales are plummeting owing to changes in legislation and consumer behaviour.

Where once was the most discriminating market in the world are now consumers concerned also with value. At nearly double the price of other varieties Koshihikari rice is being shunned in favour of copycat varieties grown more cheaply in other parts of the country such as Chibanear Tokyo.

Strict new labelling laws have also affected demand. Enforcement of the revised Japanese Agricultural Standards Law, which requires correct labelling of all food and beverages meant that the previous practice of mixing Koshihikari rice with other brands and calling it ‘Uonuma’ rice ended in March. Conventional blended Uonuma Koshihikari was replaced by 100% Uonuma Koshihikari but the price of a 60 kilogram bag skyrocketed by more than 20% since the introduction of the labelling law.

However, the ruling government party claims most of it support from farmers and is reluctant to halt the extensive government subsidies Japanese rice farmers are entitled to or the inflated price of rice. The country now imports 8% of its annual rice consumption, or about 770,000 tons per year, but is subject to a 500% import tariff. However, most imports are still cheaper than local brands and foreign Koshihikari varieties are also gaining popularity. Sales of Californian-grown Koshihikari rice grew 20% from 1999 to 2000.

Japanese rice farmers may be facing tougher times, still, ahead. A government’s six-year relief package — worth about ¥6 trillion (US$48bn) and designed to help farmers compete against imported rice – ended this spring. The country’s new PM is also seen keen to win urban votes at the expensive of those of a dwindling agricultural population.

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By Michael Fitzpatrick, correspondent