August 4, 2008

Rice Flour Used More As Wheat Prices Soar

TOKYO _ Following the recent rise in international wheat prices and increasing interest in food safety, domestically produced rice flour, or ground rice, has suddenly come to the fore.

Rice flour had been used to make senbei crackers or dumplings, but breads, cakes and noodles made with rice flour have launched on the market in recent years.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry is aiming to increase consumption of domestically produced rice by stimulating demand for nontraditional rice products as well as for animal feed.

Wider utilization of rice flour is expected to contribute to the nation's improved food self-sufficiency rate, which is less than 40 percent.

Rice flour has gained consumer popularity over the past few years as a wheat substitute since prices for that commodity began rising on the international market.

Local Japanese governments and farmers' cooperatives are seeking new ways to use rice flour as part of a project to boost the development of the sector as well as to promote "local production for local consumption."

Rice bread has been introduced into school lunches at primary and middle schools.

According to a survey by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, 7,836 primary and middle schools nationwide introduced rice bread in the 2006 school year, four times more than in 2003.

Thanks to development of technology to grind rice more finely, cooking with rice flour has become easier, enhancing its role as a wheat flour substitute.

Gunmaseifun Flour Milling Co., a company in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture, which specializes in rice flour production, has developed a noodle, called J-men, which is made only of rice flour. The new product hit the market last month.

J-men has a characteristic translucence and texture, and it has already been used at a famous Italian restaurant in Tokyo, according to the company.

According to the agriculture ministry, rice flour prices are still high, compared to wheat and corn. Though the international prices of wheat and corn have risen, rice remains twice as high as wheat and five times more than corn.

Wanting to increase rice flour sales, Gunmaseifun President Keiichi Yamaguchi noted, "Rice products are gradually becoming more price-competitive as wheat prices have increased."

As part of efforts to boost consumption of domestically produced rice, the agriculture ministry also is putting much effort into increasing demand for the commodity as animal feed.

More than 70 percent of livestock feed used nationwide consists of imported grain.

Feeding the animals with imported grain will work to decrease Japan's food self-sufficiency ratio, even though the animals' meat and dairy products are processed within the country.

According to the ministry, rice's nutritional value is the same level as corn, possibly allowing rice to replace 60 percent of the feed for pigs and birds and 20 percent for cows. Based on this calculation, demand for rice as livestock feed in fiscal 2008 is projected to increase by 7 million tons nationwide, nearly the same as the predicted demand of rice _ 8.15 million tons_as the principal human diet.

The ministry expects the trend to help reduce areas of fallow fields and abandoned farmlands.

However, domestic rice flour production totals only about 100,000 tons per year. The amount of rice used as the new raw material for bread and other products is only about 6,000 tons.

In 2006, the actual domestic demand of rice for animal feed was only 480,000 tons. Most of it was not domestically produced, but imports based on the Uruguay Round trade agreement, under which Japan is required to allow rice imports.

The agriculture ministry is considering establishing a support system to help farmers produce rice and invest in related facilities, aiming to launch it in fiscal 2009.

The ministry has included 50 billion yen in its 2007 supplementary budget for farmers who produce rice as livestock feed.

The ministry also will support livestock farmers by allocating 3.1 billion yen in its 2008 budget.

However, not only subsidies but other measures are needed to increase the rice flour supply.

The greatest challenge will be to reduce the price differential between rice and corn by developing new, higher-yield rice breeds and reducing distribution costs.


(c) 2008, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

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