The Great Rice Stagnation

…the rice yield per hectare in Japan, after climbing for more than a century, has not increased at all over the last 17 years.  It is not that Japanese farmers do not want to continue raising their rice yields.  They do.  With a domestic support price far above the world market price, raising yields in Japan is highly profitable .  The problem is that Japan’s farmers are already using all the technologies available to raise land productivity.

Like Japan, South Korea’s rice yield also has plateaued.

…Rice yields in Chin are now very close to those in Japan.  Unless Chinese farmers can somehow surpass their Japanese counterparts, which seems unlikely, China’s rice yields appear about to plateau.  If China hits the glass ceiling for its rice yields, then one third of the world’s rice would be produced in three countries (Japan, South Korea, and China) that can no longer raise land productivity or expand the area in rice.

That is from the new, excellent and to the point Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, by Lester R. Brown.


Let them eat oats.

What reason do we have to believe this doom-and-gloom-monger? Julian Simon might have been an optimist, but history has shown doomsayers to be wrong time and again. How is this one different?

This one is different because it is based on years of data, not on projections. The figures are not about what might happen, they are a report of what has already happened.

Are any of these nations using GM yet?

This stat suggests China has started to use GM crops, but Korea and Japan don't.

But it's the same in one respect; it presumes constnats that are actually variables, hwne it says:
"If China hits the glass ceiling for its rice yields, then one third of the world’s rice would be produced in three countries (Japan, South Korea, and China) that can no longer raise land productivity or expand the area in rice."

There it is predicting the future and in that future China, Korea and Japan are still inexplicably producing one third of the world's rice, when in fact in response to shortages places that can grow the japonica varities of rice in question, like California, would at least double their acreage and places like Iowa and Illinois, which are just as good as Korea for those japonica varieities, would come into production because rice would sell for so much more than corn.

And acreages in the indica varieties popular in southern China, that already grow very well in Texas and the Mississippi Delta, could probably be increased, maybe as much as in California.

He has data for Japan and South Korea. He does not have, or does not use, similar data for China. He simply assumes that China will plateau too. Or more accurately, he clearly hopes that it will because that would then support and defend his life's work. The report is a projection about what might happen.

And of course to reach his preferred conclusion he has to ignore all other factors. People down thread say Japan should stop growing rice. The Japanese public and the Japanese government have strong feelings about this. But so do Japanese farmers. They have all moved to the cities. Japan has an aging population with most villages empty of people as all their children moved to urban areas to get real jobs. The same with South Korea. Thus we do not have to assume that rice production has plateaued. It is enough to note that farmer production has done so. Older people cannot work as hard. And probably don't need to.

Does this mean all is doom and gloom? If I were Japanese I might think so. But I am not. So instead I will say, who gives a f**k? Brown has been wrong about everything. He seizes on every piece of bad news in the hope that this time his wailings will be proved right. Fortunately he is always wrong. Unfortunately he has the reverse Cassandra touch. Whatever bullsh!t he comes up with, no matter how many times he is shown to be wrong, he is always believed.

No particular reason. Lester R. Brown has been an environmental activist for about 50 years now and has founded several eco-oriented organizations. I suspect his past predictions have fared about as others of his ilk.

Many economic and resource projections of this type pooly deal with technology improvement since, by its nature, its hard to predict. (one that has worked is Moore's Law, which simply assumes that technology improvement will happen at an exponential rate, and amazingly has fit the data pretty well for more than 50 years.).

As the following sentences will sure illustrate, I know nothing about agriculture, but are the calories and protein per acre of rice the highest of all possible crops in those countries? Eating rice is a preference, and if the historic rice land could switch to a different use, I wonder if productivity could possibly rise?

I know almost nothing, but that never stops me. Rice grows in water which is a natural herbicide and pesticide(?). Water is not required AFAIK, it is used to increase yield, itself a yield-increasing technology. Rice is not just a preference, it is possibly the perfect human food (arsenic aside). Unfortunately it is so good it promotes monoculture and a lack of robustness and diversity. My guess is rice is the technological peak of maxed out yield, storability, pest resistance, etc.

As far as I know, rice has a lower protein content then wheat, and has historically been causing health problems in China and Japan when diets were not varied with other supplements.

Wheat looks nutritionally superior. However, I am viewing the ability to grow rice in paddies as a kind of automation technology for rice which is not as conducive to internal combustion automation as wheat. Your point valid and is not at odds with a theory that an excellent calorie source can get people into trouble.

I, too, know nothing about this, but I was reading about the Roman vs. Chinese Empires and I believe someone brought up the point that rice is able to be grown at higher densities (cal/m^2) than wheat? Is that true or am I making it up?


Rice gives (very roughly) twice the kJ/m^2 compared to wheat. Oats, barley etc. are sort of comparable to wheat. Maize and potatoes are comparable to rice.
But this ignores the fact that they are best grown on different sorts of land, in different climates. You can't really compare kJ/m^2 because you can't swap a rice paddy to a wheat field and get optimum growth.

Meanwhile, the rate of obesity on this planet has exceeded the rates of malnutrition, and is pulling ahead by the day. Clearly whatever we are doing to grow food, we are doing it right.

I found this:
Potatoes yield four times more calories per acre than grains.

But have also read that some tree crops produce even more.

I think that the Irish proved that potatoes per acre is a very calorie-intensive crop.

Corn is the same way, if I remember right. You can grow tons of it per hectare compared to wheat. The only problem is that it shares the same problem that potatoes have in the form of a weakness towards blights and disease in monoculture stands.

No way - the mainstream consensus is Malthus was a crank, right?

He was, but even if he wasn't, the planet will start declining in population well before we can't feed everyone.

Malthus was correct, under most conditions.
For 99.99% of human history, humans have lived under Malthusian conditions.*
This only came to an end at about the end of the 18th century. Sadly for Malthus, this is when he wrote his book.

*Long term at least. Because of hysterisis in the feedback loops, a large die-off (the Black Plague, the Antonian Plague, a huge war such as the Lan-Shi rebellion) or a large technological improvement (the invention of fire, atlatls, maize, lanteen sails) can get the population in a non-malthusian state for a handful of generations. But eventually things tighten up again. So short term periods of population growth, but a long term pattern of being up against the food limits.

Sounds like a great argument in favour of GM crops to me ...

I'm sure the Chinese are super uptight about GMO.

It conveniently ignores all the parts of the world that are so dysfunctional that both yield and delivery are inefficient. In most parts of the third world, not only is production low but unlike Japan, even where production is good, wastage in delivery is inefficient. I bet that in China the gap between rice produced and how easily it gets to consumers is bigger than in Japan. Not all productivity gains (perhaps not even most) in the world have been about raw production. This was an issue with the USSR where high output was not the same as high delivered output. Brown tends to ignore such issues in his Malthusian zeal.

There is the other alternative that someone will figure out a way to break the plateau. I would say that this becomes more and more probable the more the need grows. That breakthrough however might need to be listed under "Ending the Great Stagnation"...

We'll just imagine we have a can opener, right?

Your skepticism would be correct on the proverbial desert island. But if you have.a world market full of cans, it would be extremely naive not to assume a can opener.

A world full of cans, AND a world full of machine tool shops filled with bored, hungry, machinists.

Our only worry is the political threat of power groups that regard can-openers as evil.

Umm - import rice from elsewhere?

They import a lot of rice from the US in Japan. Instead of selling it they store it in warehouses to rot or feed it to animals. Satisfies their WTO obligations about open markets but lets them keep the domestic price very high. Sort of like we do with sugar here.

Based on discussions with Koreans, Chinese and Japanese.. there is a strong cultural issue here. Importing rice is a BIG issue, a threat to their national identity.
Imagine the French having to admit that they need to import wine from Australia.

We just need to tax meat consumption and end grain subsidies.

Maybe our politics will evolve to allow this sometime in the next 100 years.

It is interesting that an economist would look at a country's rice production when the product--rice--is traded on international markets, and the MARKET is international, meaning that even though Japanese and Korean rice production has plateaued, it means nothing.

Sort of like: US oil production is insufficient to supply the US.

Is this an economics website?

Japanese should not be growing rice. Lots of poor countries would be delighted to sell rice to Japan much more cheaply than Japan can produce it. All those rice farms should be turned into factories making car parts, offices for writing computer games, and workplaces for other high-value activities. They can take a little bit of the money from all those activities and buy all the rice they want. Of course, because of the crazy culture and politics in Japan, that won't happen. But I certainly don't worry about a plateau in Japanese rice production.

I'm reminded of California's large cotton industry. Along with rice, it is among the most water-hungry crops. As a non-food crop, it receives among the highest levels of pesticides. Why should Californians be growing cotton polluting our land and wasting our water when people in Egypt and India are eager to grow it for us, spin it into thread, weave the thread into cloth, and sew the cloth into shirts -- all at prices far below what we can meet? All that land and water should be used for high-value crops like fresh fruit and vegetables, not low-value commodities than can be grown in the Third World, warehoused for years, and shipped across oceans.

And don't get me started on sugar beets.

Maybe it is cheaper to pay a " domestic support price" for rice than a computer game.......

'Japanese should not be growing rice'
Nobody in Japan cares the least about what an American thinks about Japanese food security, seeing just how effectively the U.S. was able to cut off all food imports to the home islands around two generations ago.

The same applies to European countries, in broad strokes, if not in detail.

Only Americans seem to have the feeling that the market will provide in times of war and famine, whereas other countries know, precisely, how stupid that belief is. Though if history is any guide, those living in North America will get to experience what it is like to be unable to feed themselves, and what that means in terms of policy for the generations which follow.

Everyone has their preferred level of risk. You could spend every last dime on guns, crossbows, canned goods, and jerky stocked in your bunker. But at some point almost everybody relies on the idea that society and commerce will be available in the future. Even if world war, asteroid collision, or raging zombie apocalypse might lead to the collapse of commerce, you weigh the significance and harms of a risk with the costs of preparing for that risk.

Japanese protectionism of their domestic rice market has very little to do with food security and a lot to do with their preferences for Japanese rice (they think American rice tastes like crap) and their view as a country of the central importance of domestically produced rice in their culinary and cultural tradition (in a Japanese meal, rice is considered the main course and all the meats, vegetables, etc. are considered to be side dishes).

IMO part of the yield/acre problem in Korea and Japan is due to the massive protections granted to rice farmers by both governments, combined with policy encouragement of small farmers (partly as employment policy). There would be less land devoted to rice due to the unfavorable climate here vs. say South Carolina, as well as less capital built up/knowledge of 21st-century mechanized farming. I have already seen farms in Korea converted from rice land to factories, chicken coops (CAFO-style), etc.

Japanese rice is not just expensive. It's also extremely high quality. They are trying to maximize the amount of gourmet-quality rice they can grow on their land. It is not relevant to world food needs. Probably most Japanese would be happy to purchase lower quality (and cheaper) rice, but the important restrictions make that market unavailable.

You should try talking to an actual Japanese person some time. Many of them would find the idea of using foreign rice as the centerpiece of their diet somewhere between distasteful and blasphemous.

Open up the market then and let's all watch no one buy cheaper rice.


Okay, the Japanese just got weirder...if that were possible.

That's just silly. If Japanese people could buy Thai or California rice at 1/3 or 1/5 the price, they would buy it and eat it happily.

... when i read this sort of thing, i reflect on Paul Krugman's usual insistence that inflation is low and that in any case because food is a commodity prone to wild price swings there is nothing Fed policy should even try to do about rising food prices ... and that one of the side effects of a low interest rate regime is the real possibility of lowering the dollar's value vs. other currencies which are seeking food in international markets ... and i think about the poor and even middle class people who are trying to keep up and i conclude that Paul Krugman doesn't quite get it

Isn't Krugman's point that commodity price wheat or corn can greatly increase but the price on a loaf of bread goes up $.05 - $.10. From memory the cost of wheat in a loaf of bread is only about ~$.10 and wheat increases 50% then all bread price will increase between $.05 to $.10. It is to the point that a lot of commodities have such little effect on the US economy.

He would agree that these food commodities will have more impact on China and India economy.and that is why they struggle more with inflation.

Based on USDA statistics (, the fraction of retail food costs tied to commodity prices is quite low and typically less than 14% so for US consumers dramatic swings in commodity prices typically affect producers more than consumers. That is not necessarily true in LDCs where consumers are much more likely to consume unprocessed commodities, but that also starts getting at differences between the urban vs rural poor in LDCs and the costs associated with moving away from subsistence agricutlure.

A tremendous amount has been written on relative productivity gains and trends in agriculture as well as the sources and origins of productivity growth. Even a cursory review of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics shows this. For those who do not want to wade through that level of math, most of these findings can be obtained through various reports put out by the USDA Economic Research Service, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization or even think-tanks like IFPRI. My point is that there really is not a 'knowledge vacuum' on this topic that only Les Brown can fill. Ag Economists know quite a lot about this. Perhaps there should be a post from an 1862 economist on this topic?

this approach was mentioned at the blog, it still in development -

but it is possible to have 50% more rice with it's introduction.

another approach is hydroponic rice - while it is difficult to grow - it is actually possible to 4 harvests rather than one

here the necessary breakthrough is needed in energy generation ( huge share of hydroponics growth expenses ).
But say or might provide energy at prices which might make hydroponics more competitive with open agriculture than now.

I do not see stagnation here - just need to resolve those quite clear identified problems ( and the stronge hope that there are solutions exists )

I've never heard about hydroponic rice, although I've heard that hydroponic tomatoes can grow very well.

That's one weird possibility that might happen: a shift in the food mix because some crops are easier to grow en masse in protected environments than others in the face of climate change. Imagine a diet with much less corn but much more tomatoes.

Anyone asking rhetorically about the possible use of GM crops in these countries as an obvious and easy way to increase yields should first try and find any GM-research that produced varieties with consistently higher yields in any food or feed crop. (And let's not even speak about GM varieties already on the market or ready to be mass-produces.) As far as I know, there is no such product (definitely not on the market), yield is something that current GMOs only indirectly affect, if at all (Glyphosate-resistance won't necessarily increase yield compared to traditional plant protection methods, and the same is true for transgenic varieties producing the Bt toxin). It's just supposed to save costs, not to save the world, and on the long term it seems to fail even at that. I've been hearing promises about GM crops with higher yields and better drought resistence, and "Golden Rice", preventing blindness in children in developing countries etc. for at least the last ten years, and - again, as far as I 'm aware - none of these are available or widely used.

And the Chinese, by the way, are actually experimenting with GM crops. It's just not the silver bullet many people would like it to be.


Brown is typically gloomy. The Chinese are typically optimistic, as in this article

"Yuan Longping, China's leading agricultural scientist, realized one of his 80th birthday wishes recently when his super grain brought yields of 13.9 tons of rice a hectare, setting a new world record for rice output.

When he turned 80 last year, Yuan, who is widely known as the "Father of Hybrid Rice", vowed to cultivate a new type of hybrid rice yielding about 13.5 tons a hectare by 2012 and improving to 15 tons a hectare in 2020. "

The Japanese population is nearly static, the population pretty much has as much rice available as they need and the local rice is too expensive to export. So there isn't significant growth in a product without significant demand growth. Color me shocked.

So the only relevant point seems to be about China. And honestly, I don't believe the comment that China being out of land well suited for rice (if it truly is) implies that China doesn't have abundant land for other grains. So much ado about nothing?

Many of the comments here illustrate one of the differences between Tyler and his fanboiz. Tyler recognises that there is a real world governed by natural laws about which one can obtain empirical data. Just because you share his preferences about how the man-made world ought to be does not mean he shares your beliefs about the natural world.

Gold Price Chart so beautiful that it will

make you want to lick the screen:
Max Goldberg, Founder.

A timely example because it illustrates how much the Great Stagnation is driven by productivity suppressing government regulation.

Japan has a regulatory environment for growing rice which is only slightly more sensible than the Saudi regime for growing wheat. It's a small, crowded country with very little flat land, and a climate at the margins of the rice growing zone, which favors small scale, labor intensive farming in a country with high labor costs.

It's not surprising that the optimization of this highly sub-optimal system has run into limits (or to put it colloquially, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear).

Japan could double rice yields tomorrow simply by growing its rice in Thailand or the US or Australia. To paraphrase John Connor in T2: There's no great stagnation but what we make for ourselves.

What are the rice yields in tonnes per hectare (or tones per acre, if you prefer) per year in Thailand, USA, Australia, Japan? How do rice growers in Thailand, USA, Australia get double the amount of rice from the same area?

It as almost as if you hadn't heard of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and what happened to its productivity gains after the U.S. Navy destroyed the Japanese merchant marine in WWII.

Really, maybe MR University should think about teaching a class on recent American history, and its relation to the economies of nations in Asia, Europe, and South America. And the cool weapons technology is just a bit of added visaul bonus - most of it being in the public domain after all.

That was 70 years ago.

It seems to me that the real question is not rice yield per acre but total production. If farmers start employing less and less fertile land to deal with increased demand, the average yield will drop. Thus, keeping the average yield constant while increasing production might actually be a type of growth. Guess I'll have to read the book to figure out whether this is the case!

'If farmers start employing less and less fertile land to deal with increased demand, the average yield will drop.'
We are talking about Japan - just how much 'less fertile land' do you think the world's essentially highest population density country has just lying around, particularly after 6 millenia of rice cultivation?

A good overview can be found here -

That article notes that Japanese farms tend to be small, partly due to government policies that aim to prevent large, consolidated commercial farms: "The decline came about because in 1969, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries has asked farmers to reduce rice acreage; under the Staple Food Control Act of 1942 the Japanese government is formally in charge of all rice production, distribution, and sales (Hsu, 2001). Since the postwar Land Reform (1945–1949), Japanese farms have remained fragmented and small. To prevent the reconsolidation of farmland, joint-stock companies cannot own farmland; agricultural cooperatives can own farmland only if they do the actual farming."

That could be an important reason for why Japan appears to lag behind the Mediterranean, Australia and the U.S. in terms of rice yields. This also suggests other Asian countries might be able to avoid Japanese-style stagnation with large-scale rice farming.

Some of the skeptical comments above appear justified. Australia, Egypt, Greece, Spain and the United States all beat Japan, South Korea and China in terms of rice yield. See here:

According to this report (which admittedly may be outdated since it was written in 2004), the average Japanese farmer devotes less than 1 hectare of land to rice even though 85% of farmers have a plot of land dedicated to rice. So Japanese rice farming appears to be a small-scale, part-time activity for farmers. We really need more information to decide whether Japanese yield is somehow the theoretical limit for Northeast Asia. Do government subsidies favor small, inefficient farms over large commercial ones, for instance?

Aurelia George Mulgan (professor of politics at the University of New South Wales) sums up the current byzantine mess that is Japan's agricultural policy (

"The scheme supports all commercial rice farmers, including small-scale, part-time rice farms that account for 40% of Japan’s farmers and which continue to farm, owing to the guaranteed income that covers production costs regardless of how much the rice price falls. The scheme has now been extended to upland-field crops, such as wheat, barley, soybeans, sugar beets, and starch potatoes. Keeping small-scale farms in production blocks the scale expansion of farming by discouraging the transfer of agricultural land to full-time professional farmers. It thus traps the sector in a cycle of low productivity, low profitability, and subsidy dependence, which makes agricultural trade liberalization more, not less, difficult."

The Japanese consumer not only pays the taxes that go to these absurdly rich subsidies, but also forks out more than twice the world market prices for staples such as rice. All to support many "farmers" who would barely qualify as backyard gardeners in the U.S.

Just a minute. FAO data on paddy rice yields in 1993 and 2010 (17 years)

Japan 45783 to 65110 43% growth
S. Korea 57330 to 68786 20% growth

US 61761 to 75375 20% growth
Brazil 22912 to 41271 87% growth

If you don't believe, check for yourself.

Ok, 1993 was a low yield year (especially in Japan).

So compare average yield 1990-92 (to leave out 1993) to average yield 2008-2010.

Japan 7% growth
S. Korea 18% growth
US 21.5% growth
Brazil 102% growth.

Ricardo, I am totally agree with your thoughts. Keep doing these type of work.

Comments for this post are closed