Recovery from earthquake shows strength

by Morton Sosland
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While it may be premature to make an assessment at this stage of all the effects of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant problem that hit Japan beginning on March 11, it may be said with confidence that the country’s grain and flour milling industries have emerged from these natural catastrophes showing little damage. Yes, this good fortune is due mainly to plants being located in places that did not feel the full impact of what was one of the world’s most powerful earthquakes. But it also importantly stems from not just a strategy of geographic diversification, but from the efforts of company management and staffs to respond forcefully and effectively to a situation that threatened chaos. Instead of a breakdown in what is one of Japan’s most essential and, yes, vulnerable food industries, operations a month or so later have returned to the pace characterizing that nation’s highly vaunted efficiency.

Of course, the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake and the awesome tsunami sweeping across the northeastern coastal area was devoted to assuring that staffs were safe and uninjured. Even those companies that operated plants, such as sales and distribution centers, a few port elevators and a single flour mill, nearly in the path of the disaster lost no employees and sustained minor injuries. Even plants some distance from the epicenter experienced brief shutdowns, due to earth vibrations. Considering that building a flour mill in Japan costs a multiple of similar projects in other countries, due to building requirements to protect against earth-rattling episodes, it is certain that new and greater respect for this process will emerge. Milling benefited from the fact that most plants were built in reconstruction after World War II.

Because of the highly important strategic decision made in the post-war period of the 1950s that Japan would not invest in expanding domestic food production and instead would rely on imports of such basic needs as wheat, the nation’s milling industry is primarily built adjoining or near large port grain-receiving elevators. Yes, large mills are also located at interior locations near major population centers in the Tokyo Bay area, but the reliance on ports obviously raised some early concern about this situation. Fortunately, the northeast coast hit the hardest is relatively unimportant in wheat receiving. Yet, again, construction meant to withstand earth tremors meant the grain elevators stood on strong foundations.

The principal problems faced by the grain and flour milling industry center on the electricity supply and distribution by truck, as well as the initial overwhelming product demand due to a spurt of consumer buying. Because of the breakdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant along with earthquake damage, electricity supplies were curtailed. The response was rationing by three-hour or four-hour blackouts on a rolling basis across major areas. These power interruptions were worsened by severe gasoline shortages that slowed truck transportation. Even with these cutbacks, which in turn curtailed train service used by most of the commuting public, none of the flour mills indicated problems caused by employees not reaching their jobs. Indeed, the efforts individuals made to walk to reach their jobs symbolize for many observers the spirit that has made Japan, a country with few natural resources, one of the strongest economies in the world.

While it is appropriate to focus on how the massive earthquake affected the internal Japanese flour milling and grain industries, sight should not be lost of this country’s position as the world’s largest importer of grains. It accounts for 10% of global trade in wheat and feed grains, at 24 million tonnes. That contrasts with second-ranking Egypt at 15 million. Japan’s speedy recovery from this horrible natural disaster not just symbolizes the power of the country’s people and industry, but also the strength of its economy. This combines to promise a quick return of normalcy to buying of grain on the world market.