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Monday, March 10, 2014
- Kazuya Tarukawa, 36, left a secure job in the Japanese capital to tend to his family’s organic farm located 100 km away from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor.
Although falling outside the evacuation zone, set at 60 km from ground zero by the Japanese government, the Tarukawa farm is not immune to suspicions of radiation contamination as consumers grow increasingly wary.
Ten days after the disaster at the Fukushima plant on Mar. 11, 2011, Tarukawa’s 74-year-old father, Hisashi Tarukawa, committed suicide in despair.
“My father was devastated after the meltdown in the Fukushima nuclear reactor and reports of radiation contamination spread. He felt hopeless about not only his future but also for agriculture in Japan,” the younger Tarukawa told IPS.
The farm, that produces a variety of vegetables in the summer, has been carefully tilled for eight generations, a legacy that in the past decade included organic farming under the devoted efforts of the now deceased Tarukawa.“The nuclear accident has wiped all our efforts away,” said Tarukawa’s son and successor, who struggles with bouts of deep despair himself.
Farmers in the area are still struggling to come to terms with the fact that one of the worst fallouts of the Fukushima nuclear accident is the blow it dealt to the Japanese food industry, once respected worldwide for quality standards.
“Japanese marine and agricultural products are reeling from domestic and international rejection due to radiation fear,” says Prof. Ryota Koyama, an expert on food safety at Fukushima University.
“The time has come to develop new safety policies that are based on both scientific evidence and social concerns, a critical step towards dealing with this issue,” said Koyama.
The past few months have seen the government scrambling to regain public trust with food grown in Fukushima and the neighbouring areas by scraping away contaminated top soil from local farms.
Other measures include pledges to conduct new testing for cesium 137, a dangerous radioactive material, on more than 25,000 farms, establishing more stringent safety ratings from April this year and also intensifying screenings for the element in stores.
Cesium 137 has a half-life of around 30 years and is a known cause of cancer.
This month, the Japanese health ministry proposed a special limit of 50 becquerels (measure of radioactivity) per kilogram for milk and food items for infants, to lower exposure to radiation.
A panel of scientists has already approved the proposal, while pointing out in a release that new measures for all food items have “secured special considerations for children.”
But anti-nuclear activists and parents who are continuing to lobby for better protection standards for children in Fukushima insist they will not be satisfied until the government takes steps to evacuate the entire younger generation to fully safe areas.
According to estimates made by the influential Asahi Shimbun newspaper in September 2011, an area of more than 8,000 sq km had accumulated cesium 137 levels of 30,000 becquerels per sq metre.
The estimated contaminated area covered almost half of Fukushima prefecture, the third largest in Japan, covering 13,782 sq km. It included 1,370 sq km in Tochigi, 380 sq km in Miyagi and 260 sq km in Ibaraki – prefectures adjacent to Fukushima.
Asahi Shimbun calculated the size of the contaminated area based on a distribution map of accumulated cesium 137 levels measured from aircraft and released by the science ministry on Sep. 8, 2011.
Fukushima and the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl are both rated at ‘level 7’, the worst on the International Nuclear Event Scale because the quantities of radioactive materials released exceeded several tens of thousands of terabecquerels.
“Testing that indicated unsafe contamination level was initially done by farmers rather than the government,” observed Masai Shiina, spokesperson for the Fukushima Mothers Network to Protect Children. “Trust is broken with officials.”
According to Koyama, increasing public angst and mistrust of the government has raised the importance of developing nuclear safety standards that are based not on scientific measurements alone.
“The public refusal to be appeased by scientific safety levels proposed by the government supports the dire need for the inclusion of a social approach to the current nuclear contamination,” he pointed out.
A prospect that Koyama pushes in his research on food contamination is developing a variety of safety levels for different food items to replace the current limit set at 100 becquerels.
At issue is the development of tougher standards on staples such as rice while fruits can stay at current levels, following a system practised in Ukraine.
Koyama advocates dissemination of clear information on the dangers posed by various kinds of radioactive contamination such as the fact that cesium can be controlled over several decades whereas radiation exposure from plutonium at Chernobyl lasts much longer.
Farmer Kitaburo Tanno, who gave up his eight-hectare farm in Nihonmatsu, located 45 km from the damaged reactor, agrees that honest information from the government is the only way to save Japanese agriculture.
“I decided to move away from my farm soon after the accident because I could no longer trust information from the government. I would have appreciated an honest assessment for farmers who could then move on with the support of public funds. This did not happen,” he explained to IPS.
More than 100,000 people, mostly younger people, have left Fukushima to escape radiation contamination.
The mass migration is bound to affect agriculture production in the rich farming areas of the northeast prefectures that are a major agricultural base for Japan, leaving the government with having to make tough choices and decisions.