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Poor Harvest May Force Japan to Import Rice

From Times staff and wire reports

Unseasonably cold, wet weather is expected to damage Japan’s 1993 rice crop and could force the government to slaughter a sacred cow--its ban on foreign rice imports. That could mean at least temporary gains for California rice growers.

The Agriculture Ministry has forecast that the 1993 rice harvest would fall to 9.6 million metric tons from an average annual yield of 10.3 million tons, a Japanese newspaper reported.

With up to 450,000 tons of rice in government stockpiles, Japan is expected to have enough rice to meet the needs of consumers, who eat about 10 million tons annually. But the government may find it hard to meet the demands of food manufacturers that require the grain to produce rice crackers, soy sauce and other items.

“This year’s cold summer could seriously hurt the rice crop, a development that raises the possibility that Japan may have to import some of its rice needs for the first time since 1984,” the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper predicted.

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“This could benefit some California rice farmers,” said Larry Grell, a Chico, Calif., rice farmer and chairman of the Rice Growers Assn. of California.

“But long term, this isn’t the solution,” Grell said. “Next year when Japan produces a normal crop, or a bumper crop, why would they come back and import a crop they have plenty of?”

Japan temporarily relaxed its foreign rice ban in 1984, after three years of poor harvests, and imported 150,000 tons from neighboring South Korea. Japan also lifted the ban last winter, allowing the import of 30,000 tons of sweet rice, according to Grell.

Japan’s rice ban is one issue on the negotiating table at the Uruguay Round of world trade talks, due to wind up later this year.

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