What we eat after Fukushima

When people ask me how things are here in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, I tell them life is mostly normal for my family down here in Tokyo, except that we are very careful what we eat. Given the relatively high food prices in Japan I used to pay more attention to how much things cost, but now I watch more where everything is from. I do it not just for me and my wife but also for our kids (two teenagers).

I really do feel sorry for the farmers in areas affected by the radioactive plumes released after the cores of units 1, 2 and 3 melted down and the buildings of units 1, 3 and 4 blew up in hydrogen explosions, but I largely avoid several prefectures as places of origin. I do not have faith in the government or the food distributors to protect us. The sad fact is, there is very limited capacity for inspections and the surprises just keep on coming. Consumer level geiger counters are not suitable for food safety inspections. That takes high end hardware that costs more than US$100,000 apiece and it’s very time consuming. There are not many of these machines around.

Much of the early radioactive scares were about iodine 131, which decays with a half life of only 8 days. It showed up in Tokyo drinking water and in leafy vegetables as far south as Chiba, in Tokyo’s commuter belt. Within 2 months more than 99% of that I-131 had decayed. By now it’s no longer an issue.

Then attention turned to cesium, which is a more long term problem. It will be with us for much longer, for the rest of our lives in the case of Cs-137 (half life: 30 years). If ingested, about half of radioactive cesium is removed again from the body every 3 months, so it’s not as severe as strontium, which stays in the bones forever, but any internal contamination must be taken seriously. There are parts of my native Bavaria, 1200 km from Chernobyl, where 25 years later most wild pigs shot by hunters still have to be disposed of because they exceed government limits for radioactive cesium. They tell us the radioactive release from Fukushima was much smaller than from Chernobyl, but we’re also much closer to it than Germany was to Ukraine and much of our food is grown even closer to it.

Japanese tea as far away as Shizuoka, some 300 km from Fukushima-I, has exceeded government limits for cesium. Rice straw from northern Miyagi prefecture, some 150 km north of Fukushima-I was too contaminated to be fed to cattle.

Rice prices in shops have increased 20-30% recently, from under 1500 yen per 5 kg bag to 1800-2000 yen per bag. This is the result of consumers stocking up on 2010 rice ahead of the next harvest, which is less than 2 months away. People appear to be concerned about what levels of cesium will be measured in 2011 rice. Beef exceeding government limits had already made it to supermarket shelves and dinner tables before the problem was detected, so people are naturally concerned if this won’t also happen with rice. It’s not an easy problem. By mixing rice from different areas, perhaps no single bag of blended rice exceeds government limits, but that is not the answer. According to current scientific theory, a given amount of radioactivity does not cause fewer cases of cancer by spreading it over more people. The proper answer would be to test rice from every field that is potentially affected and exclude rice from contaminated production areas. Naturally farmers will want compensation for food that can’t be sold, which ultimately will be paid by the government. This sets up a direct conflict of interest: The more testing the government does and the more it does to not dilute contaminated rice among uncontaminated rice, the more money it will have to pay to farmers. It is hard to have confidence that consumer safety will take priority under these circumstances.

A lot of the vegetables for stores in Tokyo are grown in Ibaraki, Fukushima prefecture’s southern neighbour, but whenever I can, I buy produce grown either further north (Hokkaido, Aomori) or further west or south (Gunma, Nagano, Shikoku, Kyushu) or imported (e.g. South Korea). Hokkaido in the far north is about as far from Fukushima-I as Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto) is to the west. Most of the dairy products on my shopping list are now from Hokkaido. Our sea food consumption has gone way down compared to pre-3/11 levels.

Domestically produced (koku-san) foods have been near-religiously venerated in Japan for many years. Consumers have been paying huge markups to eat domestically grown food instead of imports and expected the price to reflect higher quality. For example, I could buy twice was much Chinese eel or three times as much Chinese garlic as their Japanese equivalents for the same money. The Japanese government has maintained domestic rices prices above world market levels. People here always had some suspicion about pesticides or other contaminants in imported food, especially from China, but also from the US. With the nuclear disaster, the tables have turned. Gone is the assumption of safety of “koku-san” food, which will make it hard to maintain the price premium that came with it. The radioactive contamination problem is not just a health worry for millions of Japanese, it is also a devastating blow for the future of farmers and fishermen across much of Japan.

3 thoughts on “What we eat after Fukushima

  1. Just wondering how much of the fallout washed off the topsoil in Fukushima during the last set of flooding and heavy rains?

  2. I think rain will have very little decontaminating effect on topsoil, unlike hard surfaces like roads or concrete, where radioactive dust will get washed off.

    It has already been 4 months since the “black rain” and it has rained or snowed before. What contaminants were at the surface have now been washed into the top layer of the soil, from which they are unlikely to be removed that easily with further rain.

    The experience from Chernobyl was that soils that do not get plowed, such as forests or meadows, will stay contaminated for a long time. The situation looks better for fields that are mechanically worked on year after year. By turning the soil with a plow, the contaminates gradually move deeper, where not as many roots penetrate.

    Much has been made over here of the ability of sunflowers being grown for oil seed to decontaminate the soil (similar results have been reported for hemp in Ukraine), but the important thing probably is to grow anything at all, so that the soil gets turned over.

    In forests, tree roots absorb the cesium from the top layer, but then return it with falling leaves a few months later. The same goes for mushrooms and berries, which grow and decay, returning the cesium to where it came from. That’s why wild pigs, deer and mushrooms are still contaminated 25 years later.

    This is also why I think tea growers may have more of a problem than other farmers, since the same tea bushes grow year after year. Meadows at dairy farms that don’t get plowed may have similar problems.

  3. Thanks for an interesting post. Just two comments on (1) how long food will remain contaminated, and (2) on the conflict of interests faced by the government.

    1) the importance of soil make-up

    In a report about the aftermath of Chernobyl, I read that an important factor is the chemical composition of the top soil. If it is low in minerals, such as forest soil, radioactive substances are easily absorbed by plants. This explains why mushrooms and wild animals that feed on forest plants c0ntinue to show high radioactivity levels, long after the Chernobyl incident.

    I don’t know if the soil on which rice is grown is generally mineral-rich. I guess it is.

    2) more conflicts of interest?

    You pointed out that, the more cautious the Japanese government is, the more they will have to pay in compensation. Given Japan’s dire financial situation, that may indeed be an important factor at the back of politicians’ mind.

    But there are other conflicts of interest as well. One arises from the fact that votes from agricultural constituencies are proportionally worth more than votes from urban areas. This has long been an issue in Japan, and several courts have ruled that this inequality is unconstitutional. In some places, the imbalance is as big as one to four, i.e. the vote of someone in a rural area is worth four times as much as the vote of someone in an urban area.

    Second, ultimately, for politicians there is a dilemma between uncertain health risks in a distant future, versus an immediate backlash from voters in rural areas. If the Japanese government is lax and allows significant quantities of contaminated food on the market, the effects of that will only become clear years from now, when the current politicians will have retired, and, even then, it is unlikely that any causal link can be established. By contrast, being strict with controls, will inevitably lead to an immediate reaction among farmers in the affected areas, whose livelihoods depend on being able to continue to produce and sell their produce.

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