Farmers in Japan’s Fukushima face years of additional losses as consumers continue to doubt the safety of produce from the region devastated a year ago by the tsunami and nuclear fallout, which may taint crops for decades.
Almost 100,000 farmers lost about 58 billion yen ($694 million) by March 1, or 25 percent of production, according to JA, the country’s biggest agricultural group. Imports of farm products jumped 16 percent to 5.58 trillion yen in 2011, according to the agriculture ministry.
Inadequate testing by the government of rice, milk and fish from the region has prompted consumers to leave them on supermarket shelves and instead select produce from other regions or from overseas. Checks conducted nationwide so far are only 1 percent of what Belarus checked in the past year, a quarter century after the Chernobyl disaster, according to Nobutaka Ishida, a researcher at Norinchukin Research Institute.
“Consumer worries may deal a severe blow to farming in the region for the next five years or more,” said Takaki Shigemoto, commodity analyst at research company JSC Corp., in Tokyo. “The number of farmers will decline and agricultural production will decrease, leading to further increase in Japan’s farm imports.”
Tests are conducted usually once a week by local health offices, with samples taken mainly from rice, vegetables and meat. The government bans food shipments from areas where contaminated products are found.
Fukushima farmer Naoto Matsumura, 52, who lives 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the nuclear plant in the town of Tomioka, defied a government order to evacuate. He had to destroy his rice crop a year after the disaster tainted his field, he said on a visit to Tokyo on Feb. 28.
The prefecture was the fourth-largest rice producer in Japan in 2010, representing about 5 percent of the nation’s harvest, according to the farm ministry. It slipped to the seventh place last year, as production slumped 20 percent to 351,900 tons.
“Radioactive cesium may remain in our crops for the next two to three decades,” Matsumura said. “Tokyo Electric Power did not take responsibility for what they have caused. I wish the company would go bankrupt and disappear.”
The government is preparing a Tepco bailout package of as much as 11 trillion yen, the largest in Japan since the rescue of the banking industry in the 1990s. Only 6 percent of the 22.5 million tons of debris left by the water has been cleared.
Contaminated produce still found a way to markets even as the government assured people that testing was adequate. Sample surveys last year failed to prevent contaminated tea leaves from Saitama prefecture and beef and rice from Fukushima from being shipped to the market. The tainted rice came after Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato said in October that grain from the prefecture was safe to eat, deepening consumer concerns.
To eliminate tainted items completely from the food supply, all products must be tested, which can’t be done, said Hideshi Michino, a director at the health ministry’s food safety department. The ministry asked prefectural governors on March 17 last year to start testing food so that tainted products would not be sold.
“The government has taken measures to lower radiation risks on human health from food consumption,” Michino said in an interview. “The current testing system and the radiation standard for food have done enough to reduce the risk.”
Still, consumers became confused about who they can trust after the government’s safety guarantee turned out to be wrong, said Junichi Sato, an executive program director at Greenpeace in Japan.
Retailers such as Aeon Co. are safeguarding food against radioactive contamination, Sato at Greenpeace said. Aeon, Japan’s biggest supermarket chain, strengthened testing in November with a goal of selling cesium-free food only.
“I purchase rice from a farm in Kyushu through a direct sales contract,” said Ayako Ishikawa, a 34-year-old mother of three daughters, said by phone in Tokyo. “There are no other options but to select food based on its production areas given the current way of testing.”
Japan must continue monitoring food for radiation for decades, just as Ukraine and Belarus still do 26 years after Chernobyl, said Ishida at Norinchukin, a unit of the Norinchukin Bank, the central bank for Japan’s system of agricultural, forestry and fishery cooperatives. Cesium remaining in soil and water will be absorbed by crops and accumulated by fish and wildlife, he said.
Along with testing, Japan needs to build a system to produce uncontaminated farm products, Ishida said. On heavily tainted farmlands, planting of non-edible crops such as sunflower for biofuel may be an option, he said. The development of a farming method to reduce crop contamination is also necessary, he said.
“I personally would buy more foods from Fukushima if they were absolutely confirmed as safe,” said Katsumi Hirose, a 51-year-old father of two boys who was shopping at a Cataloghouse store in Tokyo on Feb. 17. “In reality, products labeled as made in Fukushima are left unsold in supermarkets.”
Cataloghouse Ltd., a mail-order company based in Tokyo, allocated space for fresh food from Fukushima in its store in Tokyo last August to help farmers in the region.
The store bought a testing machine for 3.5 million yen and checks the level of cesium in food in front of customers. It sells only products that clear safety standards and gives an explanation on labels, store manager Motoi Kitazawa said.
The agriculture ministry banned rice planting last April in paddy fields that contain radioactive cesium of more than 5,000 becquerels per kilogram. It will expand the restriction to areas where rice containing more than 100 becquerels of cesium a kilogram was produced last year, said Shin Sato at the farm ministry’s grain division.
Twelve months after the magnitude-9 earthquake, more than 340,000 people are still living in temporary homes after a tsunami as high as 39 meters (128 feet) washed away entire towns and crippled a nuclear power plant.
“Tomioka is like a ghost town,” farmer Matsumura said of his Fukushima village. “All the other residents have gone. My parents have gone too. We don’t know when they can return to their hometown.”