Pandemic puts pressure on Japan to open up rice stockpile to charities

The pandemic has highlighted often-overlooked poverty in Japan. (File/AFP)
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Updated 21 February 2021

Pandemic puts pressure on Japan to open up rice stockpile to charities

  • Poverty rate in Japan stands at 15.7 percent
  • A rolling stock of about 1 million tons is maintained in warehouses around the country, with older rice sold as feed

TOKYO: When Ayumi lost her part-time job at a restaurant last summer, she ended up relying on rice and pre-packaged fare delivered once a month by a food bank to her college campus in Tokyo.
“I cut my meals to once a day, in mid-afternoon,” the 22-year-old said. “Many friends were in the same boat – they worked at eateries that were hit because of the coronavirus.”
As job losses surge due to the pandemic, demand for food handouts has skyrocketed in Japan, prompting the government to release stockpiled rice to charities for the first time last May. Another expanded program started this month.
The pandemic has highlighted often-overlooked poverty in Japan, which boasts the world’s third largest economy but where the poverty rate stands at 15.7 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
On top of this, the average number of available jobs per applicant saw its biggest decline in 45 years in 2020, while the average jobless rate rose for the first time in 11 years.
But the move by the government to release stockpiled rice to charities comes with the requirement that it be used for children, which campaigners fear limits the impact and they are calling for the rules to be eased.
“We’re bound by the law to use the stockpile only in the event of a supply shortage in the market, or for the purpose of ‘food education’. We can’t use it for welfare,” said an official for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).
“This is the extent of what we can do.”
Japan adopted a policy of keeping an emergency stockpile of rice shortly after a bad harvest in 1993 caused a critical shortage of the national staple.
‘Falling through the cracks’
A rolling stock of about 1 million tons is maintained in warehouses around the country, with older rice sold as feed. Japan consumes about 8.5 million tons of rice annually, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), making it the world’s ninth largest consumer.
Food banks have lobbied the government for years to release some of the rice to them, but legal restrictions regarding the stockpile made that impossible.
The government does provide some stockpiled rice to public schools for free, but this is deemed ‘food education’ — teaching children about the importance of rice to Japanese culture.
But when the pandemic forced most schools in Japan to close last spring, operators of cafeterias providing free food for children, known as “kodomo shokudo,” managed to convince the government to supply free rice from the stockpile, arguing that many children were going hungry without their school lunches.
“As long as children were the end-user, we figured it could be considered ‘food education’,” the MAFF official said.
It was deemed a significant step symbolically but the impact was limited because the government capped the release at 60 kg per charity per year, and said the rice had to be cooked, partly to prevent abuse through re-sale.
The result was that less than 10 tons were taken up.
This month an expanded initiative designed for a relatively new type of charity that delivers food to poor families removed the requirement for the rice to be cooked but kept a limit of 300 kg per year per organization.
Charles McJilton, founder and CEO of Second Harvest Japan, the country’s biggest food bank, said 300 kgs of rice would “last us 30 minutes” — with estimates that this was about a 60th of what large food banks distribute each year.
“300 kg is an insult to a nation that has so much rice available and 20 million people living below the poverty line,” McJilton told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“People are falling through the cracks. If it’s the law, change the law.”
In the United States and some European nations, governments actively support food banks through various programs.
But in Japan, the MAFF is responsible for “the promotion of agriculture, forestry and fishery” with neither the charge nor budget to address hunger, the ministry official said.
COVID-19 has predictably made things worse, with demand for food handouts more than doubling from pre-pandemic levels in Japan where receiving welfare carries a strong social stigma that stops many people from accessing these benefits.
About 2 million of the 126 million population live on welfare — one tenth of those living below the poverty line.
Japan’s capital, Tokyo, with a population of 14 million has about 40 food pantries where individuals can pick up food — compared with Hong Kong’s 200 food pantries for half the number of people, according to Second Harvest Japan.
“The government’s latest initiative is one step forward,” said Hiroaki Yoneyama, general secretary of national council Food Bank All Japan.
“But big food banks distribute 20 tons (18,144 kgs) of rice a year, so the quantity is rather small.”
As supplies from corporate donors dwindle in a suffering economy, food banks have been left struggling to provide a safety net for the poor, elderly, day laborers, and desperate college students like Ayumi.
“For me, the most heart-rending thing is knowing that we have resources available out there,” said McJilton.


Algeria to review gas prices with all its clients

Updated 03 July 2022

Algeria to review gas prices with all its clients

  • Algeria’s oil and gas earnings are up 70 percent and have reached $21.5 billion in the five first months of 2022

ALGIERS: Algeria is negotiating with all its clients to review gas prices, state oil and gas producer Sonatrach’s CEO, Tewfik Hakkar, told reporters on Sunday.

Hakkar added that the review of the prices is not targeting a single company or country.

The statement comes almost a week after Spain began re-exporting gas to Morocco in reverse flow via the Gazoduc Maghreb-Europe pipeline, marking the first direct flow of piped gas from Europe to Africa.

Spain and Morocco agreed earlier this year to consider using the GME pipeline for reverse flow to the North African country with the gas to be sourced from the global LNG market.

On Nov. 1, Algeria, which has cut off diplomatic ties with Morocco, stopped supplying natural gas to its neighboring country through the GME pipeline.

Algeria is now supplying Spain using the Medgaz undersea pipeline with an annual capacity of 8 billion cubic meters, which does not go through Morocco.

Earnings up

Algeria’s oil and gas earnings are up 70 percent and have reached $21.5 billion in the five first months of 2022, compared to $12.6 billion in the same period last year, an executive at state oil and gas producer Sonatrach told reporters on Sunday.

Along with gas, Algeria is a large oil producer with 12.2 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. The country exports 540,000 barrels per day of its total production of about 1.1 million bpd. All proven oil reserves are held onshore, though offshore exploration is in the early stages.

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Argentina government crises build as Economy Minister Guzman resigns

Updated 03 July 2022

Argentina government crises build as Economy Minister Guzman resigns

  • Inflation is running above 60 percent and the peso currency is under growing pressure

BUENOS AIRES: Argentina’s economy minister Martin Guzman resigned on Saturday, a blow to a government beset by mounting economic crises.
Guzman, who led Argentina’s debt restructuring deal with the International Monetary Fund and creditors, posted a letter to his Twitter account announcing his decision.
“I write to you to present my resignation as economy minister,” Guzman said in a letter addressed to President Alberto Fernandez. He had been minister since late 2019.
The government is facing its lowest approval rating since taking office in 2019. Inflation is running above 60 percent and the peso currency is under growing pressure. Sovereign bonds have plummeted.
The resignation leaves the ministry leaderless just as Guzman was expected to travel to Europe to negotiate a $2 billion debt deal with the Paris Club of sovereign lenders.
Investors are skeptical about the economy and infighting in the governing coalition between moderates like Guzman and a more militant wing including Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Mariel Fornoni, director of the Management and Fit consultancy, said the resignation of a key ally was a reflection of President Fernandez’s loss of power since a painful midterm election defeat last year.
“It is the chronicle of a death foretold. Ever since the loss in last year’s legislative election,” she said, adding that a militant wing around the powerful vice president had been pushing to oust Guzman.
“(The president) has lost another piece of his board, perhaps the most important, and is increasingly alone,” Fornoni said.
Guzman tellingly posted his resignation letter while Fernandez de Kirchner was giving a speech commemorating iconic former Argentine President Juan Domingo Peron.
Guzman said “there should be a political agreement within the governing coalition” to choose his successor.
The president’s office said that it did not yet know when a replacement for Guzman would be announced.
A government source who asked to remain anonymous told Reuters that Guzman’s exit was due to what he felt was a lack of political support for his agenda.
Miguel Kiguel, former secretary of finance in Argentina, told Reuters that whoever takes over will have a tough time, noting that inflation could hit 80 percent this year and there is a gap of nearly 100 percent between official and parallel currency exchange rates.
“We don’t know who’s coming, but this will be a very hot potato,” Kiguel said. “Whoever comes is going to have a very complicated time.”


Dubai firms board the metaverse to improve customer engagement

Updated 03 July 2022

Dubai firms board the metaverse to improve customer engagement

  • Realty major Damac has invested up to AED367 million to develop and monetize a metaverse

DUBAI: Top Dubai-based companies are racing against time to build metaverse or immersive virtual worlds to bolster their sales prospects and disrupt customer experiences in their respective industries.

Realty major Damac has invested up to AED367 million ($100 million) to develop and monetize a metaverse that could allow potential customers to check into their luxury properties virtually, choose an apartment, explore furniture options and toy with the paraphernalia on offer.

Called D-Labs, the metaverse platform will create digital replicas of their top projects, including Damac Hills, Damac Lagoons, Safa by De Grisogono, and Cavalli Tower in Dubai. It will also host other notable projects such as Damac Tower Nine Elms in London and the upcoming Cavalli Residences in Miami.

So, how does this work? First, a potential customer in any part of the world can meet up with the sales agent of Damac Properties inside the metaverse instead of connecting over a Zoom call. Then, inside the metaverse, the prospect can tour the apartment and pay for the unit during the checkout.

“We sell around AED100 million monthly over Zoom calls without any immersive technology. With the metaverse, we can sell AED700-800 million a month to any customers in California, New York or Miami,” Ali Sajwani, general manager of operations at Damac and CEO of D-Labs, told Arab News.

The company, which has been annually clocking a business of $5 billion in real estate, expects to rake in $6.5 billion a year using the metaverse, added Sajwani.

We sell around AED100 million monthly over Zoom calls without any immersive technology. With the metaverse, we can sell AED700-800 million a month to any customers in California, New York or Miami.

Ali Sajwani, general manager of operations at Damac

Potential to disrupt

Metaverse owes much of its success to its disruptive nature that displaces traditional ways of looking at a category and creates a new business model. Gone are the days when real estate buyers would close deals based on brochures and project plans.

Instead, they are not only engaging in real-time with the property, but they now have the option to shop for things during their virtual tours. In the case of D-Labs, customers could also pick a host of non-fungible tokens or scarce digital objects on offer and sell them for a better price on a future date. The company, for instance, will soon be offering a variety of NFTs, including digital wearables and jewelry.

“The idea is you own your real estate and virtual assets. As part of our De Grisogono relaunch, we will also be offering digital jewelry. However, the goal is to convert that customer into an owner of real assets, not just digital ones,” Sajwani said.

According to management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., more than $120 billion have been globally invested in building metaverse technology and infrastructure in the first five months of 2022. That’s more than double the $57 billion invested in 2021.

The company recently surveyed more than 3,400 consumers worldwide and found two-thirds are excited about transitioning everyday activities to the metaverse, especially when it comes to connecting with people, exploring virtual worlds, and collaborating with remote colleagues.

“Our bottom-up view of consumer and enterprise use cases suggests it (metaverse) could generate up to $5 trillion in impact by 2030,” said Eric Hazan, senior partner of McKinsey in the study.

Strategy in motion

To make this groundbreaking concept a reality, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum recently announced the Dubai Metaverse Strategy, which aims to increase the contribution of the metaverse sector to the emirate’s economy to $4 billion by 2030.

Given the government’s proactive role, companies are now looking at ways to develop metaverse platforms that could launch pilot activities, study consumer behavior, learn from the real-time interactions and nurture the business model.

Emirates Airline, another early adopter of the metaverse, also announced that it would soon offer a slice of immersive technology, where the customer could virtually relish the travel experience aboard the premium airline.

“These projects will allow customers to transform their entire processes, whether it’s a business operation, training, or sales force, into an interactive experience in the metaverse,” said Emirates Chief Operating Officer Adel Ahmed Al-Redha during a press roundtable.

These projects will allow customers to transform their entire processes, whether it’s a business operation, training, or sales force, into an interactive experience in the metaverse.

Adel Ahmed Al-Redha, Emirates chief operating officer

As part of its metaverse offerings, the customer can tour the aircraft and experience economy, business, and first class, besides selecting their seats and the food and beverage of their choice.

“The customers can also tour the airport, do their duty-free shopping and buy their items while sitting at home, which can be delivered to them at home or in the aircraft,” he added.

It wasn’t a new idea for Emirates to digitize. Still, they did not have the technology to do so and are currently cooperating with different technology companies “to ensure we get the right thing,” Al-Redha said.

Al-Redha is among the league of forward-looking business executives reaping the fruits of the first-mover advantage. It will be interesting to see how they use this fresh produce technology to disrupt their business models and create newer avatars of consumer engagement.

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Exxon signals operating profits could double over Q1

Updated 02 July 2022

Exxon signals operating profits could double over Q1

  • Energy prices have shot up this year with oil selling for more than $105 per barrel

HOUSTON: Exxon Mobil Corp. has signaled that skyrocketing margins from fuel and crude sales could generate a record quarterly profit, according to a securities filing.

Energy prices have shot up this year with oil selling for more than $105 per barrel and gasoline at about $5 per gallon in the United States. The enormous earnings are likely to ignite new calls for windfall profit taxes.

The largest US oil producer projected a sequential increase of about $7.4 billion in operating profits compared with the first quarter. In the first quarter, Exxon posted an $8.8 billion profit, excluding a Russia writedown.

The filing indicates a potential profit of more than $16 billion for the second quarter. The company’s peak quarterly profit was $15.9 billion in 2012.

The filing showed Exxon expects higher oil and gas prices will add about $2.9 billion to results. Margins from selling gasoline and diesel will add another $4.5 billion to operating profits.

“High energy prices are largely a result of underinvestment by many in the energy industry over the last several years and especially during the pandemic,” Exxon said in a statement on the profit gains.

Analysts tracked by IBES Refinitiv forecast a per share profit of $2.99, up from $1.10 in the same quarter a year ago. Official results for the period will be released on July 29, according to a summary of factors influencing the period disclosed late Friday.

Exxon’s profits led US President Joe Biden last month to say the company and other oil majors were capitalizing on a global oil supply shortage to fatten profits.

The company said it is investing more than any other producer in the US to expand oil and natural gas production, including in the Permian, the country’s largest unconventional basin.

US Representative Ro Khanna said Exxon’s record-breaking profits reinforce his call for Congress to pass a windfall tax on Big Oil.

“Big Oil companies should be providing relief to their customers, not pouring billions into stock buybacks to enrich their investors,” he said in a statement.

Exxon’s shares closed up 2.2 percent at $87.55 on Friday.

Exxon, which lost more than $22 billion in 2020, has been using the extra cash from higher energy prices sales to pay debt and raise distributions to shareholders. It plans to buy back up to $30 billion of its shares through 2023.

Despite losses during the pandemic, Exxon continued to invest in additional production and expects to increase output in the Permian by 25 percent in 2022, the company’s spokesperson said.

The second-quarter results will be the first quarterly earnings report since Exxon decided to report results by four business units, giving a more detailed breakout of its petrochemical operations. The snapshot showed that margins in its chemical and specialty products units were flat in the second quarter compared with the first.

The company estimated the impact of exiting Russia would cut oil and gas profits by about $150 million compared with the first quarter. Exxon wrote down $3.4 billion in Russia assets earlier this year.

Exxon also signaled a contribution of about $300 million from asset sales in the quarter.

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Stuck bags add to tangles at Paris airports amid travel boom

Updated 02 July 2022

Stuck bags add to tangles at Paris airports amid travel boom

  • Union activists said many more passengers flew without their bags
  • The scene at Charles de Gaulle on Saturday was busy but typical for the first weekend in July

PARIS: Airlines worked Saturday to deliver luggage to passengers around the world after a technical breakdown left at least 1,500 bags stuck at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, the latest of several tangles hitting travelers this summer.
The airport’s baggage sorting system had a technical malfunction Friday that caused 15 flights to depart without luggage, leaving about 1,500 bags on the ground, according to the airport operating company. The airport handled about 1,300 flights overall Friday, the operator said.
Union activists said many more passengers flew without their bags, apparently because of knock-on effects from the original breakdown.
It came as airport workers are on strike at French airports to demand more hiring and more pay to keep up with high global inflation. Because of the strike, aviation authorities canceled 17 percent of flights out of the Paris airports Friday morning, and another 14 percent were canceled Saturday.
Passengers on canceled flights were alerted days ahead of their flights. The scene at Charles de Gaulle on Saturday was busy but typical for the first weekend in July, when France’s summer travel season kicks off.
Unions plan to continue striking Sunday but no flights have been canceled so far. They have threatened to renew the strike next weekend if negotiations with company management don’t succeed in finding a compromise.
Until now, French airports had been largely spared the chaos seen recently at airports in London, Amsterdam and some other European and US cities. Airlines and airports that slashed jobs during the depths of the COVID-19 crisis are struggling to keep up with soaring demand as travel resurges after two years of virus restrictions.

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