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Thursday, April 17, 2014
- Life for Yoshihiro Watanabe and his wife Mutsuko, mushroom and rice farmers from Fukushima, has changed drastically since the disastrous meltdowns in the Dai Ichi nuclear plant that was hit by a massive tsunami after a 9.0 strong earthquake struck on Mar. 11, 2011.
“Dangerous levels of radiation from the crippled nuclear reactors have effectively forced us to stop our mushroom cultivation and reduced our farming income almost 80 percent,” Watanabe told IPS.
He added that the family is also taking extreme care to protect their health by choosing only “safe” food, resulting in “a nerve-wracking lifestyle.” Exposure of food to radiation increases cancer risks.
Under limits set by the Japanese government, food products that report contamination exceeding 100 becquerel per kilogram cannot be sold. Becquerels are a measure of food radiation.
Watanabe’s 200-year-old farm lies in Dateshi Ryozenmachi, a small farming town 55 km from the now defunct Fukushima nuclear reactor. This year, the official Deliberate Evacuation Area was reduced to a 40 km radius around the damaged reactors even though radioactive risks have been noted in areas up to 100 km away.
Watanabe says he faces an uncertain future. “The nuclear accident has dealt a solid blow to farming in Fukushima by contaminating vast swaths of land and frightening Japanese consumers so much that they shun our products.”
Fukushima prefecture has the third-largest number of farmers in Japan producing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and processed products.
Watanabe says the biggest hurdle farmers face now is the lack of a clear radiation risk standard that can be accepted by all. The failure of a convincing standard is bad news for agriculture.
The mushroom variety that Watanabe grew on mountainous land in the area continues to show levels between 700 to 1000 becquerels per kilogram. That is up to 10 times the permitted figure.
New groups comprised of concerned residents and scientists have been launched to promote monitoring of food in a bid to restore the lives of affected Fukushima farmers, now dependent on government compensation.
Manabu Kanno who heads the group Rebuilding a Beautiful Country from Radiation told IPS they launched an inspection service soon after the nuclear accident through a non-governmental fund. The group aims to protect hard-hit local agriculture.
It currently supports more than 90,000 farming households who pay a nominal fee to have their produce inspected for contamination and declared safe for consumers.
“Livestock farmers are the worst affected as milk has shown high levels of radiation. But there are some glimmers of hope two years after the accident because radiation levels are decreasing,” said Kanno.
Farmers are now growing new crops such as cucumbers and opting for direct sales to customers rather than selling at supermarkets, where products labeled from Fukushima are shunned. Some farmers have also restarted rice cultivation this year.
The stakes remain high. More than 150,000 people who lived within the danger zones around Fukushima reactor continue to live as “nuclear refugees” in other cities to avoid radiation.
The Ministry of Environment is conducting a decontamination programme which includes removing topsoil from affected land. The programme is expected to take at least five more years to complete.
Consumer skepticism remains high, especially among families with small children, the most vulnerable to radiation exposure.
Mizuho Nakayama, head of the group Protect Kids from Radiation, told IPS that “the Fukushima accident has drastically altered the notion of food safety, particularly for mothers who want to protect their children from contaminated agriculture.”
Mother of a four-year-old herself, Nakayama said the current radiation measurements released by the government are confusing for ordinary parents. Her group monitors the official data in terms of risk for children.
“Our food shopping patterns have changed. The priority is safety and our own judgment, a major step away from relying on the government to protect us,” she said. “For the first time, we have been jolted into realising we cannot trust government radiation limits.”
Farmers are not the only ones still affected. Last week a group of fishermen from Fukushima lodged a protest with the Tokyo Electric Power Company that owns the damaged reactor, to stop the leakage of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.