Farmers in trouble over food safety
Farming is the only thing Hitoshi Onoda knows — it is what he has done for the past 35 years.
So when wholesalers in Tokyo told him last summer they did not want strawberries from his farm any longer, Onoda packed a bag and took the train to Fujinomiya, a city in the shadow of Mount Fuji about 440 kilometres away, and signed a 10-year lease for a farm.
He is leaving his farm, and Minamisoma.
“The strawberries were tested and were free of radiation but because they are from Minamisoma, no one wanted them,” says Onoda with a wry smile.
Minamisoma is a small coastal town about 25 kilometres north of Fukushima Daiichi, the crippled nuclear reactor. It is surrounded by hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice paddies. People say it looked like an endless carpet of gold in the fall.
That was before the monstrous tsunami of March 11, 2011.
The farms are now barren, the greenhouses torn down. Bales of hay rot in the snow.
READ MORE: Japan quake: One year later
One year after the nuclear reactor spewed radioactive cesium into the atmosphere, produce from Fukushima is being shunned. Peaches, this prefecture’s biggest agricultural product after rice, have more than halved in price.
Beef shipments were temporarily suspended amid contamination concerns. Even after the bans were lifted, few people have been willing to buy anything labelled “Grown in Fukushima.”
While most Fukushima produce is thought to have radiation levels that are safe, some instances of contamination in rice, vegetables and fruits have sparked fear and sent sales plunging.
The disaster has dealt a shattering blow to Fukushima’s $3.3 billion agriculture sector — Japan’s fourth-biggest producer of rice and second-largest of peaches.
Farmers are either moving away or giving up farming altogether. There is fear this may be the end of family farms, a 2,500-year-old tradition.
Koichi Todano, 59, has been a farmer for four decades; his father was a rice farmer, as was his grandfather. Until a few months ago, Todano and his son, Tomoyoghi, farmed together.
They grew rice and greenhouse vegetables and fruits like cucumber, radish and strawberries.
Four generations farming the same land. Todano long believed he could not ask for a better life.
Now, his rice fields are empty and there are few buyers for his produce.
Tomoyoghi left Minamisoma with his wife and toddler son to settle in northern Japan. He has told his father that he has no plans to return.
“I am not angry with my son,” says Todano. “He saw what was happening.”
Last year, local officials told farmers in Minamisoma they could not cultivate rice until radiation levels had been determined.
Todano focused on his three greenhouses. He had his produce tested for contamination and it was clean. But because of the Grown in Fukushima label, few people wanted them.
Todano had to lay off three employees in January. “It was disastrous. . . . I could not afford to pay their salaries.”
Farmers can claim compensation from Tokyo Electric Power, the company that owns and runs the nuclear plant. It has already paid more than $1 billion to agricultural organizations and farmers in the area.
But some farmers say compensation comes slowly, others say it has not covered all their losses.
“I submitted my claim in October but I haven’t heard a thing,” says Osamu Saito, who grew peaches on the outskirts of Minamisoma.
His fruit showed cesium levels that exceeded the government’s safety limit.
Saito will not leave his farm. He wants Tokyo Electric to compensate him so he can afford to reduce the radiation at his farm.
“I don’t want to leave. I want to make it (the soil) clean again.”
When Fukushima Daiichi melted down last year, it leaked radioactive cesium-134. It wafts as dust before settling in soil. Scientists say its radioisotopes pose a high health risk.
Once the Japanese government understood the extent of contamination, it tested produce and meat at hundreds of centres in Fukushima and in neighbouring areas.
About 500 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram is considered safe in produce. Anything exceeding that has been banned for shipment or distribution.
Rice from Fukushima has shown cesium higher than the safety level. So have mushrooms, spinach and citrus fruits. Certain fish, like greenling, have also been shown to have dangerous levels of cesium.
Apples, on the other hand, have been proven to be safe, containing 20-50 becquerels per kilogram.
Ridding the farmland of cesium is a task of epic proportions.
In December, the government said it would dig up and replace up to 30 centimetres of soil from contaminated rice paddies and fields to prevent crops from absorbing cesium from the roots.
Tree bark and branches will be shorn. Soil will be decontaminated in orchards. Grass in pastures will be removed if it contains too much cesium.
It will take a long time — as much as five years — and a lot of money.
But for those farmers whose land lies within the 20-kilometre no-entry zone around the crippled reactor there is no option.
Their land will lie fallow for at least two decades before radiation levels fall below Japan’s criteria for evacuation.
There are vegetable and fruit markets at every street corner in Minamisoma. Produce is also available at convenience stores.
Produce and meat from other prefectures sells quickly while prices for produce labeled Grown in Fukushima has fallen in half. Even at that, it languishes on shelves for days before it is thrown out, says Kinji Matahiro, who works at the downtown Tulip Grocery Store.
“Look at that purple band,” she says, pointing to label on a head of cabbage. “As soon as people see that, they look away.”
Fukushima has become a byword for nuclear disaster even though a large part of the area was unaffected, she says. “I don’t know how long it will take to get things back to normal.”
The government has tried to help by screening produce and stamping ND for “not detected” on those found clear of contamination. The government’s agricultural division has also created projects to relocate farmers.
But few farmers have taken advantage of these programs. They lost faith in the government because it did not quickly come clean on the extent of the radiation leaks.
All they want is compensation.
For poultry farmer Masahilo Kazami, damage payments may never happen.
Before the contamination, the 61-year-old sold hundreds and thousands of eggs easily in Kawauchi village near Minamisoma.
The village is now empty and people look at the Fukushima sign on the white egg boxes and quickly look away.
“I am still feeding the hens,” he says. “Don’t know how long I can do this.”
He is not eligible for compensation because he doesn’t own farmland and his eggs haven’t shown any contamination. “But no one is buying those eggs. I don’t know what to do.”
Onoda is preparing to move to Fujinomiya in a few weeks. He is leaving a farm that has been in the family for three generations, a traditional Japanese house that he built himself and the town in which he was born and spent all his life.
“There is nothing for me here now,” he says. “It’s all over.”
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.