Nuclear accident still affecting Japanese agriculture

Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant accident caused hardship for the region’s farmers, including asparagus grower Yoshiyuki Shigihara.  |  Photo courtesy Fukushima Prefecture Iitate Reconstruction Policy Division

Strict protocols are in place to routinely test and monitor all agricultural products to ensure food safety

FUKUSHIMA PREFECTURE, Japan — Yoshiyuki Shigihara, manager of one of the Seven and I convenience store chain’s outlets in his native city of Iitate, dreamed of starting a greenhouse asparagus farm.

Iitake has a similar environment as Kitakata, another city in Fukushima Prefecture famous for its asparagus.

Asparagus sold in Japan in the winter comes from overseas.

“We wanted to provide asparagus in winter, so we started greenhouse farming,” Shigihara said.

It takes three years to grow asparagus. Shigihara and his wife Keiko, who previously worked for an electronics company, were just ready to finally harvest when disaster struck.

The March 11, 2011, earthquake, with a magnitude of nine on the Richter scale, caused devastation in Japan’s Tohoku region, which includes Fukushima Prefecture.

The coastal region of this heavily agricultural area saw many of its houses, farms and animals washed away by the resulting 10-metre-high tidal wave.

Worse, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant’s meltdown spewed radioactive elements into the water and soil, contaminating agricultural products, including animals.

Radioactive contaminants even found their way to Tokyo, 227 kilometres away.

Fukushima Prefecture produce became undesirable in and outside Japan, even when much of it was actually safe, as radiation levels vary according to areas and products.

Immediately after the earthquake, the Shigiharas still did not know the effect of radiation on people’s bodies.

“We saw people walking around in protective suits,” Shigihara said.

A government inspector checked the Shigiharas’ greenhouses.

“He sighed and said, ‘you worked so hard to grow your asparagus, but they are not safe to eat,’ ” Shigihara said.

The Shigiharas briefly evacuated to the prefecture of Aizu, then returned to Iitate at the end of March 2011 for three months. They then moved to Fukushima City.

Receiving subsidies totalling $294,000 from both the national and prefectural government, and investing $320,000 of their own money, the Shigiharas rented overgrown former apple orchard farmland and started a greenhouse asparagus and corn farm in 2015.

The Shigiharas now grow 2,500 to 3,000 cornstalks in two greenhouses with a total space of 2,100 sq. feet, while their asparagus grows in a 310 sq. foot space in a third greenhouse.

“We shipped 300 kilos of asparagus this year to the agricultural co-operative in Fukushima City and the store where my husband used to work,” Keiko said.

Good fortune has overcome bad for the farmers. Whereas Iitate is very cool, even in mid-summer, temperatures are much higher in Fukushima City.

“The difference of temperature during the day is very good to stimulate the growth of the vegetables,” Keiko said.

However, the heat forces the Shigiharas to work harder in Fukushima City than in Iitate.

“We need to ventilate the greenhouses,” she said.

One of the difficulties the Shigiharas face is lack of government support in finding markets.

“If we had good markets, we could grow more,” Keiko said.

Profitability remains in the future.

“We are in the red,” she said.

The Shigiharas are among 46 IItate commercial farming operations that received financial support to resume farming in another location in the prefecture, said Makoto Sugioka, agricultural policy desk chief for Fukushima Prefecture’s Iitate reconstruction policy division.

An additional 57 families received support to resume farming for their own consumption, Sugioka said.

The national government provided almost $8 million with the prefectural government adding $704,000.

Funding from the national government included $1.6 million received by the Iitate Village Council, which used the grant in part to buy tractors and hothouses to rent to farmers.

Crops grown by farmers include daikon (a big carrot-shaped white radish), komatsuna (a type of rapeseed), cabbage, Chinese cabbage, blueberries, figs, squash, buckwheat and potatoes, he said.

The prefecture’s Agricultural Technology Centre in Koriyama City has set strict tolerance standards for radiation to ensure food safety and reassure consumers in Japan as well importers.

The centre, which opened in 2006, did not have equipment to measure agricultural produce radioactivity.

Following the disaster, Fukushima Prefecture produce samples were sent for testing to the Japan Chemical Analysis Center in Chiba, the capital of the Chiba prefecture.

Fukushima’s agricultural centre started conducting radiation testing in September 2011, said agricultural safety promotion department subdirector Kenji Kusano.

Results for each test are posted on the centre’s website, as well as the websites of Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The Prefectural Agriculture and Forestry Office collects samples through agricultural associations in the prefecture’s cities, towns and villages.

The office’s employees wash away soil and remove the rotting leaves and inedible parts from the samples and then tag them with a sample code and produce name, harvest date and area provenance.

Samples received by the Agricultural Technology Centre are first checked with a survey meter, with those showing more than 500 counts per minute of ionizing radiation treated separately as heavily concentrated contamination.

Non-liquid samples are finely chopped to leave no room for air and put into containers. Milk is also tested.

“Squashes are hard, so we crush them by banging them down with a hammer,” Kusano said.

The samples are then placed in a Germanium detector, which measures radioactivity. Standards allowing for radioactive content are very strict, Kusano said.

Codex Alimentarius, a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations relating to food, food production and food safety under the United Nations’ World Health Organization, considers 1,000 becquerels an acceptable limit. (A becquerel is a measurement of the activity of a quantity of radioactive material in which one nucleus decays per second.)

However, the Agricultural Technology Centre sets the limit at 100 becquerels, and 50 becquerels for raw milk because milk is consumed by babies.

“In Japan, we apply this stringent standard, and unless this standard is met, the food cannot be commercialized,” Kusano said.

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