How can an entire country run out of butter? A shelf displaying butter is almost empty at a supermarket in Tokyo (AP photo / Thinkstock)
How can an entire country run out of butter?

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When Japanese pose for pictures, instead of saying "Cheese!" some say "Butter!" These days, butter is more likely cause for frowning, since it is being rationed.

Grocery stores are limiting each customer to a maximum of two packages of butter. Last week the government announced its latest plan for "emergency imports" to ease shortages of the spread.

The butter shortfall stems from several factors, including stressed out dairy cows, aging farmers, rising costs, and trade and price restrictions.

The official reason for short supplies of milk used to make butter is lower output due to unusually hot weather last summer in the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan's dairy basket. Fresh milk sells for more per ton than butter, so dairy producers are said to be giving butter short shrift and butter sections are often bare on shelves crammed with various margarines and other spreads.

Apart from overworked cows and difficulties growing enough forage to feed them, dairying is among many Japanese agricultural industries in decline. Farmers are retiring without heirs willing to take over their farms and prices for feed and fuel have surged, cutting into profits.

Japan had 417,600 dairy farms in 1963. As of February, it had 18,600 despite heavy government subsidies.

Japanese farmers, like those in the U.S. and many other countries, traditionally have been protected from foreign competition, this is both to ensure a degree of food self-sufficiency for this resource-scarce island nation and for political reasons.

Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's vows to modernize farming and "drill deep" through the country's bedrock of bureaucracy and vested interests, his government has made little headway apart from tinkering with land reforms.

Tariffs on imports of farm produce average 23 percent. Overall, the government pays a subsidy to dairy farmers of 12.8 yen (11 cents) per kilogram for butter and 15.41 yen (13 cents) per kilogram for cheese.

Dairy farmers like Shinjiro Ishibashi, who is raising about 300 head of cattle on his farm in Chiba, east of Tokyo, count on the support. Japan's farm lobby remains a stronghold for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. While talking up sweeping reforms, the party is also reassuring farmers it will continue to look after their interests.

"Mr. Abe says he will preserve our 'beautiful Japan,' and I expect him to do it," said Ishibashi, alluding to Abe's constant praise for Japan's traditional farming lifestyle.

Japan's Agriculture and Livestock Industries Corp., or ALIC, which is overseen by the farm ministry, buys and sells products through an open and online bidding process, to help ensure stability of prices and supplies, in effect subsidizing loss-making farmers and manufacturers.

The system, meant to ensure stable supplies, appears to be failing to do that, at least for butter.

Japan's raw milk output in the fiscal year that ended in March was 7.45 million tons, down from an industry peak of just over 8.6 million tons in 1997. Butter consumption per person has held steady for about a decade, at about 2 kilograms (4.4 lbs), while milk consumption has been falling.

Apart from the emergency imports, four major local dairy companies were ordered to increase output of butter for home use by 30 percent in early December, reducing drinking milk and cream production, the farm ministry said.

It said it would do everything possible, beginning next year, to stabilize supplies.

Critical thinking challenge: Why are dairy producers less motivated to produce butter?

Assigned 24 times

  • ws2001wrex
    12/16/2014 - 12:59 p.m.

    Dairy producers don't want t to produce butter because, he have so much of it and its very unhealthy for us to keep on eating so much butter.

  • RM00charlie
    12/16/2014 - 01:01 p.m.

    dairy producers aren't producing as much becasue they aren't getting as much money as they are on other dairy products. also butter compared to everything else doesn't seem like it is that popular.

  • tw2001marvel
    12/16/2014 - 01:02 p.m.

    With butter, the workers will only get 12.8 yen or 11 cent per kilogram for butter. Then there is cheese where it is 15.41 yen or 13 cent per kilogram for cheese. Making butter will only allow them to get a limited amount of money.

  • IM2000food
    12/16/2014 - 01:06 p.m.

    dairy producers are less motivated to produce butter because of the unusually hot weather last summer in japan. also it says that the cows were overworked and they had difficulties growing enough forage to feed them.

  • MadisonSch
    12/16/2014 - 01:51 p.m.

    That's pretty strange for a supermarket to limit people to only two packages of butter. A lot of recipes use butter in it.Butter may not be the healthiest thing to eat, but it is in a lot of common food.

  • ARany-Cas
    12/16/2014 - 07:39 p.m.

    The farmers are retiring and they aren't making enough money from making butter. Farms a are decreasing in Japan, and when farmer retire usually they don't have anyone to take over their farm.

  • GigiSylvester-Ste
    12/16/2014 - 10:56 p.m.

    maybe its because people have come out with all kinds of new things to replace butter. there's margarine and i cant believe its not butter "butter". maybe there's just not a need for it anymore.

  • JSteven-Sti
    12/17/2014 - 10:55 a.m.

    M - The thing is that Tokyo has run really short on butter because people are buying way too much butter.

    E - The evidence is that when the Tokyo people buy the butter the claim is that it causes people to have frowns and lots of sad faces.

    A - The Analyze part is that all of the butter in Tokyo is going very quick so the government of Tokyo has limited Tokyo people to have two things of butter for a week.

    L - My opinion is that the government in Tokyo should not have a say in how much butter that Tokyo people choose to buy its them spending thousands of dollars in butter and that's the more the money that the government will receive.

  • TaylorHartman-Ste
    12/17/2014 - 11:57 a.m.

    I cannot imagine the town that I live in having to ration butter, because butter is something that we heavily rely on for everyday cooking and eating. However, it may be a good idea to lower amount of butter being bought because it most likely leads to the obesity in the country, with all of the fat included.

  • Aw2001soccer
    12/17/2014 - 12:58 p.m.

    they are less motivated because people are buying the "fake" butter they are buying the butter that is less fat and possibly better for you so the business of the original butter is going down

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