Saturday, April 30, 2011

Worst is not over

By Masaru Yamada
Japan Agricultural Journalists’ Association

Is the worst over?
Everybody asks me. I always reply – “To me, it was apparently over, but one thing I can tell you it is totally depending on where you live.”

After being hit on March 11 2011 by one of the largest earthquakes in history, we Japanese are now – in a way – going back to ‘business as usual’.

In the world famous Akihabara electric town in Tokyo, you don’t see many differences between now and two months ago. You see many pedestrians on the streets on holidays looking for great discounts on PCs or games machines.

Just like I did before, I commute by train to my office in Akihabara every day from my house, located 30 km east from Tokyo. I have lunch at the cafeteria of the Japan Agricultural News which I am working for. We buy rice, milk, vegetables, and fruits at supermarkets, and gasoline at gas stations without any problems. The prices are the same as they were before the disaster.

Little has changed as long as you are living outside the hard hit zone in Tohoku district.

The story is very different in the hard hit area. Many people are still looking for bodies of their relatives, and waiting for vacancies in temporary houses.

When it comes to agriculture, more than 20,000 ha of farmland was washed out by the large tsunamis (some of them were more than 30 m high). Farmers are struggling to remove debris and salt from their cultivated land. But in some areas, it is often in vain. You can imagine that many are affected when you realize that an average Japanese farmer has only 1.6 ha of farmland.

Although the government has pledged that it is going to support farmers heavily, by including subsidies and loans in the future, farmers are losing money and facing challenges. These include problems coming from radioactive contamination caused by the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The government of Japan has issued both legal and voluntary orders to farmers not to ship their products, mainly vegetables, because of high levels of radioactivity in the crops.

Farmers in the area are following the rule. If the government says no, they simply dump the crop. They will be reimbursed for the damage by the TEPCO, an electric company which owns the nuclear facility. If the government says it is OK for consumption, they sell the crop.

Since we have fairly strict food safety law, scientists believe food consumption in Japan is safe as long as the system works. However, things are really complicated when it comes to radiation. Prime Minister Kan Naoto ate cucumbers in front of TV cameras at his office to show that the food is safe, but some consumers don’t believe it. The prevailing view is that crops coming from Fukushima and nearby prefectures are not safe to eat. If this keeps going, farmers in the area will have to suffer from both the disaster and the harmful rumors.

The real challenge our farmers face is how to convince our consumers that local food is safe. It may take a long time to do so, but there is no other way for the Japanese farmers to survive.

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