In a country where agriculture is elevated to the level of art, where unmatched care is given to growing, selecting, packaging, transporting, and selling fruits and vegetables, being a farmer in what may be the most highly regarded region for the quality of its agricultural products is an ongoing commitment and an age-old source of pride.
Hisao Tsuboi (60 years old at the time of the accident) is a farmer in Miyakoji, a part of the city of Tamura designated as an evacuation zone. He recalls this commitment with a touch of nostalgia: “At the time, I was growing rice on a plot with an area of about four hectares. I was also growing vegetables, and I was working part-time for a local livestock farmer. I was always careful to use the smallest possible amount of chemicals for my vegetables. I shipped my vegetables to Tokyo and the region of Kanto. I was in regular contact with some thirty customers... That’s how I made my living.”
For agricultural and livestock farmers in Fukushima like Mr. Tsuboi, who dedicated their lives to perfecting their craft, the radioactive contamination that crept into every corner of their rice fields and orchards and contaminated their livestock after the nuclear power plant accident was more than just a hard hit to their business; it was a sacrilege, the unbearable vision of their ancestral lands suddenly sullied, tainted, impure. The embargo on agricultural products from the prefecture of Fukushima further added to the profound sense of shame leading many farmers to abandon their farms. Nevertheless, some decided to stay, or return, and fight it out.
Hisao Tsuboi, Farmer, director of Tsuboi Noen, city of de Tamura
Even before the disaster of 2011, I always worked with the goal of providing my customers - mostly living in the Tokyo region - with products they could eat with total peace of mind. Today what drives me is the desire to once again offer products they can trust.
SLOWLY BUT SURELY
Muneo Kanno (60 at the time of the accident) was among those who decided to stay and fight it out. He also experienced the trauma of the early days after the accident. He had to abandon his rice paddies and vegetable crops, slaughter entire herds of contaminated livestock... An apocalyptic scenario. “Iitate, my village, is located between 30 and 50 km from the nuclear power plant, and the winds often blow that way. It was declared a mandatory evacuation zone one month after the accident, so I was forced to leave. Just after the accident, dose rates of 44 microsieverts/hour were recorded. We were told not to leave home, but if we had to, to avoid contact with the soil. March is the period of the year when we start most agricultural activities,” he recalls.
Losing the product of years of work and having to start over is a lot. After hesitating for a short time, Mr. Kanno decided to start farming again, starting nearly from scratch. Taking the bull by the horns, and with support from the
Resurrection of Fukushima organization, he began by decontaminating his land, which had to be done before starting any other project. As he explained: “To revive this area, large-scale decontamination was crucial. That’s why I started by decontaminating the edges of my home last year. This year I am decontaminating my land, and I expect to spend two years on that, including decontamination of essential connections, like the road to my farm.”
Muneo Kanno, farmer, director of the organization Resurrection of Fukushima, Iitate
What’s important to me is that the residents have criteria for making decisions. That's how we can come together and avoid never-ending discussions. We need to have an idea of what is happening. For me, that's the service that needs to be provided to residents.
In addition to decontamination, the farmers in Fukushima conducted, with the assistance of scientists such as Keisuke Nemoto and Masaru Mizoguchi, both professors at the University of Tokyo,
new experiments aiming to significantly reduce the transfer of cesium to rice. After months, their dogged efforts began to bear fruit. The radiological quality of the rice and vegetables grown in a remediated environment improved significantly, reaching values well below the limit of 100 becquerels per kilo established by the government.
WHEN CONSUMERS COME TOGETHER
Worried about the risks associated with consumption of contaminated products, most consumers throughout Japan simply eliminated all products from Fukushima from their diet. Some of them, however, went to the trouble of obtaining the information necessary to make an informed decision, without prejudice.
Shima Yamamoto was one of them. Age 36 at the time of the accident and mother of three children, she lives in Yokohama. Desiring to find answers to questions she had on food, she created a small study group on radioactivity in which she acquired basic information on the types of radiation, radioelements, radioactive decay, the notion of exposure, contamination, effects on health, etc. Slowly but surely, with the help of scientists, she developed the ability to distinguish between that which is safe and that which isn't in the different aspects of everyday life, starting with food. She challenged the preconceptions of her husband and family, for example by cooking mushrooms, assuring them that everything she is giving them to eat is above the recommended radiological standards, while being top quality in terms of taste! With Tazuko Arai, another consumer in Tokyo, Shima Yamamoto, was contacted by Twitter to participate in the 3rd meeting of the Fukushima Dialogue Initiative, dedicated in July 2012 to the issue of contaminated food. Impressed by the efforts of the farmers, both took action in their respective regions to advocate in favor of the improvements made month after month by the producers in Fukushima with the quality of their products.
CONNECTING PRODUCERS AND CONSUMERS
At their own initiative, these determined producers and consumers fought to restore the reputation of the quality of food products, safe once again, and the image of the “Made in Fukushima” label.
Striving to systematically measure each sack of rice and each vegetable does not amount to much until the consumer regains trust in the “Made in Fukushima” label. A long, hard, and daily struggle led with the support of precious allies, starting with the JA (Japan Agricultural Cooperative) of Shin-Fukushima and the JA of Date Mirai, two local JA branches, and the Japan agricultural cooperative group. Motivated by a spirit of mutual help, the JA brings together cooperatives present in each region of Japan, providing its members with different services: insurance, advice, credit, marketing, purchasing, and social assistance.
Another powerful ally was the Coop, which connected producers and consumers. Sunkichi Nonaka, head of the Fukushima Coop, explained the significance of this consumer association in the distribution world. After the accident, to help the “Made in Fukushima” label, the association never ceased to innovate in two ways: first, by making measuring devices available to consumers, explaining to them how to use them and how to interpret the results, periodically putting out information bulletins showing the decrease in the contamination levels registered, promoting products from Fukushima outside of the prefecture thanks to its national network of points of sale. The Fukushima Coop proved to be a strong ally, both for the producers and the consumers, while helping to restore the image of food products from Fukushima through transparent and credible information.
Each sack of rice is systematically tested before shipment to demonstrate the lack of contamination of the rice produced in the Fukushima prefecture. This policy aims to gradually restore consumer confidence in the “Made in Fukushima” label.