All About Japan

Are Fukushima's Vegetables Safe to Eat?

Farming TOHOKU I found it! Fukushima Tohoku
Are Fukushima's Vegetables Safe to Eat?

In the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, there are still concerns out there regarding the safety of produce grown in Fukushima Prefecture, site of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. We talked with a farmer who hopes to set the record straight.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck beneath the coastal waters of Japan’s Tohoku region. Before long, the tsunami generated by the earthquake caused the spread of radioactive material from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Seven years have passed since the accident, but one still sees shocking information on the Internet from time to time. Although nearly all of the rumors are ultimately proven to be false, those who hear them tend toward the mindset that “there is less to lose by believing they are true than by thinking they are lies.” Is Fukushima’s food really safe? Many people are still unsure.

Just recently, the EU officially handed down a decision to lift the restrictions either in whole or in part on agricultural and marine products from 10 prefectures, including rice grown in Fukushima Prefecture. In September of 2017 as well, the US loosened import restrictions on milk and dairy products from Japan. However, people in Asian countries and territories like China, Taiwan, and South Korea are still nervous about foods produced in Fukushima Prefecture. Just how serious was the impact of the nuclear accident on Fukushima’s agriculture? Is it safe to eat fruits and vegetables grown in Fukushima Prefecture? To find out the truth, I visited Fukushima a few days ago to interview a local Chinese man engaged in farming and the area’s agricultural cooperative.

Fukushima Prefecture’s Date City is a small city with a population of around 60,000 people. Shuai Zhang, who is from China, has lived here for 15 years. He began farming a month before the earthquake on March 11 and he has witnessed the resurgence of agriculture in Fukushima in the nearly seven years after the earthquake.

Shuai Zhang was born in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang Province in 1982. His maternal grandmother was a Japanese orphan left behind in China after the war, so he brought his whole family to Japan in 2003 and began living in Fukushima. After working at a few factories, he was influenced by his relatives and became interested in farming, which offers comparatively more free time. In February 2011, just a month before the Great East Japan Earthquake, Zhang’s family set out on their path as vegetable farmers.

Zhang did not expect to encounter such hardship right from the start. He had just bought farming machinery and tools and even planted seedlings when the world-shaking Great East Japan Earthquake struck. All Zhang could do was abandon everything he had prepared and evacuate to China. After less than a month had passed, he grew worried about the crops awaiting harvest and returned to Fukushima. “I had ordered the seedlings in advance, and also bought farming machinery. It was a big startup investment, so I couldn’t just give up.”

Farming is the mainstay that supports the economy of Fukushima Prefecture. After the nuclear accident, just hearing “food produced in Fukushima” was enough to make people go pale. Having just started farming, Zhang would have the misfortune of experiencing this most trying time. The Zhangs had no knowledge about farming at all. They asked relatives to teach them, learned everything from the start, and built greenhouses 60 km from the nuclear power plant. “In the summer, the temperature inside the houses is over 40 degrees Celsius (104°F) even at 10 o’clock. So we have to start work just after five o’clock every morning. Even with all the effort we put in, we were running in the red for the first three years and didn’t make a profit.” During the heavy snows a few years ago, the five greenhouses Zhang worked so hard to erect ended up collapsing.

“Fortunately, Fukushima Prefecture provides generous support for farming, so we have been able to get along so far,” says Zhang. “Young people who want to learn agriculture can receive a subsidy of more than 1 million yen per year for the first two years. When you buy farm equipment, you can also obtain a subsidy of up to 50 percent. For example, it costs ¥1.5 million to build a greenhouse, but you can receive a subsidy of ¥750,000. The same kind of subsidy is available when you buy farming machinery and the like as well. That is why we were able to get by without making a profit even when we just started.”

“In the year of the earthquake, the spinach was over the reference value for radioactive material, so we had to throw it all out, and we were compensated for it by TEPCO. Since then, the vegetables I grow have never been over the reference value. The reason is that I grow in greenhouses, so the impact of the nuclear disaster has been minimal. Still, the price is nothing like it used to be.” Zhang has great confidence in the vegetables he grows. He says, “Since the earthquake up to today, I send samples of all the vegetables to the agricultural cooperative to be tested for radioactive material before harvesting and before shipping, and the cooperative only buys them if they pass the tests. The cooperative centralizes the buying and selling of all the vegetables, which prevents dangerous vegetables from flowing into the market at the source. Our family drank bottled water for two years after the earthquake, but since then we have been drinking the tap water. The vegetables we eat are usually ones we grew ourselves. I also buy rice directly from local farmers.”

Mr. Zhang’s views were confirmed by the JA-Fukushima Mirai agricultural cooperative. Masashi Suzuki of the cooperative’s Date Area Guidance and Sales Division explained it to me in the following way. A framework has been established in Fukushima Prefecture for the general testing of foods for radioactive material. It performs safety assessments on local agricultural products, and the cooperative’s testing data is an important way to provide transparency. In fiscal year 2016, the testing center tested 13,322 samples from the Date area of Fukushima Prefecture from March 2016 to February 2017. These included vegetables, fruits, beans, edible mushrooms, edible wild plants and processed foods. All of the test results can be queried on their associated website. One can see from the data that no samples failed the tests last year.

I learned about the testing process at the testing center. After the vegetables are washed and cut, they are placed into a radiation detector, and the test results are displayed on the computer immediately. If the value for radioactive cesium is over 100 becquerels per kilogram, the vegetables are considered to exceed the reference value. This is how circulation on the market is strictly controlled.

“In spring and summer when large amounts of vegetables are shipped out, the three members of the testing staff have many busy days.” According to Mr. Suzuki, after radioactive cesium was detected in edible wild plants in the year following the nuclear accident, they immediately prohibited the picking and shipping of the plants in question, and there have not been any vegetables that exceeded the reference value in the last several years.

What caught my attention when looking at the testing list for 2016 was that the largest number of test samples for vegetables was cucumbers at 1,019, and the largest number for fruits was peaches at 3,492 tests.

Mr. Suzuki says that Fukushima Prefecture is the main production area for cucumbers and peaches, and the Date area has the highest production of peaches in Fukushima Prefecture. In recent years, the volume of exports to countries in Southeast Asia like Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia has been rising.

In addition to food, the prefectural government is also paying great attention to the health of residents, especially children. In Fukushima, children are tested for the presence of radioactive material in the body every year. Alongside this, there are Japanese people carrying on their normal lives in the vicinity as well, so the Zhangs do not feel any particular unease either.

Currently, Mr. Zhang is trying to work out his own unique cultivation techniques. “I had some experience with farming in China, too, but large-scale farms under collective management are the norm there, so there isn’t much of a technical aspect to it. However, in Japan, each farmer does his own cultivation, and the cultivation and management methods vary depending on the farmer and the land. In the same way, my land also has different soil drainage, nutrient levels, temperature and air permeability. At first, I relied on technical guidance from the agricultural cooperative, but lately I have been trying to figure things out on my own and I’m gaining experience.”

“When I first started farming, there weren’t many young people who wanted to do agriculture. Because of that, there was a lot of unused land, enabling me to rent land easily, so I now have around 13,300 square meters of land. That said, it will be hard to expand more than this. The number of people who want to do agriculture has increased over the years, and it has become harder to find land,” says Zhang. “You can harvest cucumbers 25 to 30 days after planting the seedlings. During the busy season from April to October, I have to pick, water, and fertilize the crops every day. I also have to protect against insect damage, so I don’t get even a single day off. Recently, I’ve been too busy to find the time to do everything myself, so I have been getting help from two other people starting this year. Next year, I plan to have two more agricultural trainees come in.”

While talking with Mr. Zhang, I realized something. In his eyes, Fukushima is his hometown, a land full of gratitude, joy and hope. He tills the land and cares for his crops, then waits for harvest time to come around. He has two children, and the Zhang family is thriving. Before, Zhang’s family was living in municipal housing. In the summer of 2017, they bought their own detached house located a five-minute drive from the farm. Thank to Zhang’s influence, two of his cousins also started growing vegetables in greenhouses in 2014. Today, four families of his relatives are involved in farming in Fukushima.