Kawauchi, a farming village 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the site of the world’s worst atomic disaster in 25 years, feared for its future as radiation from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant soaked into the soil. Then Takeo Endo suggested farming without soil.
As paddies that once supplied Japan’s imperial family with rice sit fallow, Endo is leading a local government team that’s pioneering a project to grow food in a sealed-off hydroponics factory. An aluminum-clad, single story building the size of a soccer field is under construction that will produce 8,000 heads of lettuce a day from April. More may be built for tomatoes, strawberries and other fruit.
“I was concerned that Kawauchi farmers wouldn’t be able to grow rice and vegetables for as long as 10 years,” Endo, 36, said in an interview at Kawauchi, 245 kilometers north of Tokyo. “So I thought, ‘What if we grow them in a building, shutting out radiation completely?’”
Advances in centuries-old technology that now makes use of LED lights and a water solution infused with fertilizer may restore jobs and revive the area worst hit by the record magnitude-9 earthquake that struck on March 11, 2011. Cooperation between researchers, government and industry to help Fukushima rebuild offers farmers who lost homes and livelihoods the chance to compete with imports and show Japanese consumers that their food is safe.
Agricultural shipments to Japan jumped 16 percent to 5.58 trillion yen ($59 billion) in 2011 in the wake of the disaster, caused when the quake unleashed a 15-meter tsunami that claimed more than 18,000 lives and sparked equipment failures at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. nuclear plant.
Almost half a million people were evacuated from the region. Two years on, a meandering arc stretching 20 kilometers from the plant defines a no-go zone after reactor meltdowns spewed cesium and other radioactive particles into the air, soil and sea. Japan banned farming around the reactors, ordered the slaughter of more than 5,000 livestock and started regular testing nationwide for radiation.
The prefecture was the nation’s fourth-largest rice producer before the accident. It’s slipped to seventh place with 2012 output dropping 17 percent from 2010 to 368,700 metric tons, according to the agriculture ministry.
Almost 100,000 farmers in Fukushima have lost 105 billion yen since March 2011 and many cannot restart cultivation, said Hideki Sasaki, an official at the local prefectural office of JA Group, Japan’s largest farmers’ cooperative.
Kawauchi rice farmers Yoshitaka and Sonoko Akimoto, who supplied the imperial family in 2007, are among them.
“We worked so hard to get certificates showing that our produce was organic,” Sonoko, 68, said in an interview with her husband in the couple’s farmhouse, in the shadow of a 1,200-year-old cedar tree. “Nuclear blasts destroyed it all.”
Yoshitaka, 69, said laboratory results showed no cesium in a test crop last year and that he would now plant commercially.
Miwako Nakamura, a 46-year-old mother-of-two living in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo, is among the consumers who will continue to shun food from Fukushima. Nakamura’s parents send her home-grown rice from Ibaraki prefecture, 170 kilometers south of Fukushima.
“I want to feed my children safe food,” she said. “Contamination won’t disappear anytime soon.”
For reconstruction, Fukushima needs new industries that may lead growth in Japan’s economy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters today, citing renewable energy and health care as examples.
Hydroponics was tried in Japan by U.S. occupation forces after 1945 because some local farmers were using human excrement as fertilizer on their fields, said Tamotsu Ito, a researcher at the Mitsubishi Research Institute Inc. in Tokyo.
Factory farming didn’t gain traction due to high costs, said Toru Maruo, an associate professor of horticulture at Chiba University. That’s changing, with a facility run by Maruo’s university drawing on assistance from companies including Marubeni Corp. and Panasonic Corp. to cut production costs for one head of lettuce to 60 yen, from 300 yen 10 years ago.
Lettuce can be grown hydroponically with 1 percent of the water and 25 percent of the fertilizer required in a field, Maruo said. Yields for tomatoes at the university project are the best in Asia, he said.
There were about 100 fruit and vegetable factory farms in Japan at the end of last year, from 34 in 2009, Mitsubishi’s Ito said. The technology may be exported to markets from China to the Middle East, where pollution and harsh climates make indoor farming attractive, he said.
Endo’s lettuce plant, which will use filtered ground water that tests show is free of contaminants, will start with about 25 employees. The produce will be sold in Fukushima supermarkets and labeled Kawauchi, he said.
Of the village’s 2,835 citizens before the quake, 400 have returned full-time, he said.
Hydroponics work best for vegetables like lettuce, which can take as few as 10 days to grow, and remain inefficient for grains like rice that take months.
“This new type of farming will help some us move on,” said Yoshitaka Akimoto as he looked out across the village, where one-ton blue plastic bags stuffed with contaminated soil sat in front of neighboring farmhouses. “But I’ve never once thought of quitting.”