TOKYO -- After Fukushima suffered the world’s worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl nearly three years ago, Japanese government officials say the region's food is safe to eat. Problem is, neither its producers nor consumers trust them anymore.
While not quite the proverbial breadbasket of Japan, Fukushima was, for a long time, home to the nation’s fourth-largest farming area and has long supported itself through the production of rice, fruits, vegetables, tobacco and silk, in addition to a hefty supply of fish and seafood fetched from its 100-mile coastline.
Since the meltdown, Fukushima has dropped from the nation’s fourth-largest rice producer to its seventh, with production reportedly slipping 17 percent, according to the agriculture ministry. Roughly 100,000 farmers have lost an estimated 105 billion yen ($1 billion). Livestock farming once thrived in Fukushima – until most of its farmers were forced to evacuate after the meltdown, and 5,000 cattle were ordered slaughtered and the rest were left to starve to death.
At a testy meeting last fall between government representatives and farmers from Sukagawa and Soma, two of Fukushima’s largest food-producing areas, one Sukagawa farmer noted that the government approves of shipments of food that test below 100 becquerels (units of radioactivity) per kilogram, lower than its original 500 Bq limit (and in line with global standards), selling it at below-market value. But he would not allow his own family to eat the food he is allowed to sell.
“We won’t eat it ourselves, but you tell us to sell it to others. Do you know how guilty this makes us feel? There is no pride or joy in our work anymore.”
But despite the gut instinct that food from Fukushima cannot be safe, prominent scientists back up the government, with some noting that early evacuations, land-restriction and decontamination efforts, together with Japan’s natural iodine-rich seafood diet, make Fukushima’s food today safer than an average CT scan.
The real culprit of Fukushima’s agricultural industry’s woes may be what most Japanese consider egregious government lies and obfuscation (most notably, waiting two months before even conceding the word ‘meltdown’), tight-lipped secrecy around its data and laughably low-tech decontamination strategies that don’t seem like a match for nuclear contamination. And compounding the problem is that some scientists agree the data isn’t good.
Nancy Foust, a U.S.-based researcher and technology and communications specialist with SimplyInfo.org, a multi-disciplinary U.S.-based research group monitoring the Fukushima decontamination efforts, says, “We have found efforts to decontaminate rice paddies, but hard data on things like before-and-after crops have been hard to come by. The decontamination techniques so far have involved either deep tilling to shove the top soil down deep, or mixing in potassium to try to prevent the plants from taking up cesium.”
And that’s the rub: Most of the techniques employed in Japan – ranging from soil scraping (skimming of the first three centimeters of soil and storing it in massive canvas bags called “ton packs”), to tilling, to power blasting the bark off fruit trees or water sweeping with Karchers (high-pressure, industrial strength cleaning machines) – are primitive at best, near-replicas of strategies used in Chernobyl nearly 28 years ago. Worse, the results of such efforts are often kept secret, or at least oblique, by the government officials overseeing them.
“All of our requests for disclosure have been rejected,” says Nobuyoshi Ito, a rice farmer in Iidate and former systems engineer who has emerged as a widely cited grassroots expert on decontamination. He has been conducting his own tests with Geiger counters and other equipment to compare results with government figures, sending them to a laboratory in Shizuoka prefecture for confirmation. (A technician at the lab said he was actually better informed than most Japanese government officials on the subject of contamination.) “Even the Ministry of the Environment, the ones who actually lead the decontamination work, are unclear, or at a loss to specifically quantify their assessments. When we ask them about the possible reduction of the rate of radiation, they answer, ‘We won't know until we try.’” According to Ito, the government keeps kicking the can down the road, refusing to publicly release its findings, claiming that they are still in progress.
If rice and produce are hard to assess, fish and seafood pose an even bigger challenge. Marine creatures are always on the move, following tides and currents. “Some fish in one area of the sea are contaminated, others aren't,” says Foust. “They're having better luck focusing on certain breeds of bottom feeders. The rock fish, for example, almost always show some level of contamination, though it’s usually low. They’re reliable, but they don’t show the extremes.”
The government botched this test as well, said Foust, displaying samples like octopi, which typically has low levels, to claim all seafood was safe. While natural iodine from some seafood helps cancel out the radioactive iodine in fast-moving fish, using octopi as a standard misrepresents localized risk. No one was fooled, further eroding trust.
So, the fear of Fukushima's food persists. Geraldine Thomas, Professor of Molecular Pathology at the Imperial College in London, and the scientific director of the Chernobyl Tissue bank, was asked to assess likely health effects from Fukushima after her extensive work on thyroid cancer cases in Russia. Thomas finds the food fear in Japan baffling – a sign of modern and misbegotten hysteria.
“The most important thing to do immediately after the accident was to restrict the consumption of locally produced milk and green leafy vegetables, which are known to concentrate [radioactive] iodine,” she says, as opposed to the healthy, natural iodine found in some seafood. “This the Japanese government did very well – in contrast to the Soviet authorities following the Chernobyl accident. The Japanese continue to monitor foodstuffs, and [they] have imposed even stricter limits on radiation in foodstuffs from Fukushima prefecture than we have for our own produce in the U.K. and the U.S.”
Dr. Ian Fairlie, an independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment who is closely monitoring Fukushima says that Japanese should fear radiation – just not necessarily in the region’s food. “Contaminated food intakes are a relatively small part of the problem. People near Fukushima are more exposed via direct radiation (groundshine): smaller doses also come from water intakes, and from inhalation.”
Adds Professor Thomas: “Both the World Health Organization and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation agree that the biggest threat to health post Fukushima is the fear of radiation, not the radiation itself. Personally I would have no worries about consuming food from Fukushima – and in fact did so when I was in Tokyo last April.”
Photo: Ton packs by the side of the road. (Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky)