At the end of March 2011, a few weeks after the Great East Japan Earthquake, 20 rice farmers affiliated to J-Rap, an agricultural distribution company in Sukagawa, central Fukushima Prefecture, got together to assess the situation.

With no one seeming to have much idea what was really happening or what to expect next, the atmosphere was overwhelmingly gloomy, and many farmers were in despair over the prospects for producing any rice that year.

Heading up their concerns was the then unknown amount of radioactive material that had been and was still being released following explosions and three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Though winds had no doubt dispersed the contamination across massive swaths of eastern Japan, it seemed only logical to the farmers that their fields just 50 km southwest of the plant would have received a hefty dose — though back then, none of them had heard of iodine-131, cesium-134, cesium-137, microsieverts, becquerels or any of the radiation terminology they would soon grapple with.

But it wasn’t just radiation they had to worry about, because the magnitude 9 earthquake on March 11 had damaged the area’s irrigation systems, and many of them feared water supplies to their paddy fields would not be restored in time for the seedling planting season starting in May.

“Everyone was looking downcast,” Toshihiko Ito, head of J-Rap, said of that first meeting at the company’s Sukagawa base. In addition to 20 members present then, J-Rap also has 50 full-time farmers and 180 part-time farmers as members of the group, which specializes in no- or low-pesticide farming and whose members share agricultural equipment, a milling factory and a distribution network.

“They all said that, even if we went ahead and started production, nobody would buy our rice,” recalled Ito, a 54-year-old Sukagawa native who set up J-Rap in 1993 after spending 16 years teaching farming knowhow at a local agricultural cooperative under the wing of the government-linked Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (commonly referred to as JA).

Ito argued otherwise, eventually convincing the farmers to plant the seedlings as usual. “My stance was that I wanted to have as many seedlings as possible planted, since the more fields we worked on, the more diverse the data we got would be. And I thought such data would prove vital down the road.”

It surely would. Some 19 months later, with the second harvesting season in post-disaster Fukushima now in full swing, Ito’s group has defied the skeptics and succeeded in producing rice that is virtually free of radioactive substances despite most of the J-Rap farmers’ fields being badly polluted by cesium-134 and cesium-137 spewed out of the nuclear power plant in vast quantities. With their long half-lives of two and 30 years, respectively, it is these radioisotopes that pose the biggest long-term health risk for Japan.

Separate from its chemical half-life, cesium-137 is particularly worrisome since it has a biological half-life of 70 to 120 days for adults — meaning that after being ingested with food or liquids, it takes that many days before half the amount is digested and excreted. Meanwhile, the remainder of the cesium-137 concentrates in muscles and organs, where it is widely believed to increase the likelihood of heart failure and strokes.

Last fall, Ito says his group managed to keep the level of cesium contamination in all of its rice products to 3.1 becquerels per kilogram — compared with the national government’s provisional legal limit then of 500 becquerels per kilogram, which some Fukushima rice exceeded.

In April this year, however, the government changed its safety standard to 100 becquerels per kilogram for most foods, including meat, rice and vegetables, though it granted a six-month grace period for rice and beef producers — meaning that 500 becquerels per kilogram was the de facto legal limit for those products until just a few weeks ago.

Subject to these limits, the latest available data shows that, of the 119,438 samples tested for radiation by municipal governments across Japan from April 1 to Oct. 8, 1,489 — including mountain vegetables, mushrooms and flatfish — were found to exceed the government limit.

Meanwhile, based on tests of this season’s harvest, which started in late September, Ito says he hopes to bring the average cesium contamination across all J-Rap’s brown rice down to half of last year’s level — nearly 1/100th of the government limit. He also claims that, when it’s milled and eaten as white rice, the contamination will go down further.

In addition, all this season’s rice shipped by Ito’s company will be mixed, he said, to ensure a consistent cesium count across the board, and exclude luck or chance from the buyers’ experience.

If this is all as Ito claims, it will be some accomplishment, considering that few rice farmers in the nation, let alone Fukushima, can say their produce will contain a certain amount of cesium with that level of accuracy and clarity.

At present, when farmers say radiation is “nondetectable” in their rice, that may well be because the detectors they are using can’t register radioactive emissions below 10 or 20 or 25 becquerels per kilogram. In addition, measurements also vary according to how long the specimen is exposed to detectors. Hence some producers and distributors may be claiming “nondetectable” levels of radiation in their produce if they are prioritizing testing throughout over accuracy.

In practice, though, the concerned consumer in Japan is left even more in the dark because a majority of domestic food producers don’t publicize the results of radiation tests at all — or the frequency or the scale of their testing — but just blithely declare their fare is “within the government limit.”

In contrast, what further sets Ito apart from most of the nation’s other radiation-plagued farmers is his eagerness to seek advice from independent experts — especially antinuclear types with first-hand knowledge of what happened in the aftermath of the catastrophic 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

As Ito sees it, he can’t do too much intelligence-gathering because he says he cannot hope to protect the health of the area’s children, including his own two toddler grandchildren, by waiting for the government to respond to the crisis.

“What I really wanted to know was what the experts regretted most about their response to Chernobyl,” he said. “I didn’t care what theories or stances they had.”

One expert he has turned to is molecular biologist Masaharu Kawata, a director of the Nagoya-based nonprofit, the Association to Help Chernobyl, Chubu-district, Japan. For the past 21 years, Kawata has offered technical advice to farmers in Ukraine, making visits there two to four times a year.

Since June 2011, Ito has been meeting Kawata once every month to draw on his knowhow and seek his advice on how to prevent rice plants from absorbing cesium. He has also spent long hours poring over papers written by Yuri Bandazhevsky, a pathologist in Belarus who has performed autopsies on children from the country’s Gomel district that was heavily contaminated by radiation from Chernobyl.

Though the children had a variety of causes of death, Bandazhevsky found high levels of cesium-137 in their endocrine glands — in particular the thyroid, the adrenals and the pancreas — as well as in their hearts, thymuses and spleens. For his troubles, he was imprisoned for bribery from 2001-05 as what human-rights groups have termed a “prisoner of conscience.”

Ito has also met and had discussions with Tetsuji Iμmanaka, a nuclear engineering expert at Kyoto University who was the first to translate the so-called “Ukraine standards” for radiation exposure into Japanese, and Akira Sugenoya, the current mayor of Matsumoto City in Nagano Prefecture, who as a surgeon spent five years in Belarus from 1996 treating children with thyroid cancer.

Though it took until 11 years after the Chernobyl disaster to introduce them, in 1997 the government of Ukraine imposed the world’s most stringent radiation-emission safety controls on food. As posted by Imanaka on the Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute website, these include limits per kilogram for cesium-137 of 2 becquerels per kilogram for water, 20 for bread, 40 for root and leaf vegetables — except 60 for potatoes, 100 for milk and dairy products and 200 for meat.

In stark comparison, the Japanese government’s new legal limit per kilogram for a combined total of cesium-134 and cesium-137 is 10 becquerels for water, 40 for milk and baby food — and 100 for most other foods, including rice.

However, based on his studies of Chernobyl and its ongoing aftermath, Ito says he decided as early as May last year that he would aim for J-Rap to satisfy the Ukraine standards for all the rice it produced and sold.

Adopting such a stringent benchmark, he says, is essential to protect Fukushima’s children as much as possible from internal exposure to radiation because, since March 2011, they have been externally exposed to much higher than normal levels.

In Sukagawa, for instance, which is less contaminated than many areas, airborne radiation readings that spiked to 1.96 microsieverts per hour on March 18, 2011, have gradually fallen to 0.1 to 0.8 microsieverts per hour, compared with pre-disaster levels of 0.04 to 0.06 microsieverts per hour, according to the city government.

Meanwhile, in the July after the disaster when he was loaned a gamma-ray spectrometer by Daichi-o-Mamoru-Kai, a Tokyo-based organic food distributor that buys rice from J-Rap, among many other producers, Ito began testing foods that the area’s residents were eating. He then moved on to test the soil of the group’s 341 standard-size, 30-by-100-meter rice fields covering a total of 97 hectares.

One of the first things Ito says he did, right after meeting with Kawata for the first time, was to sprinkle potassium fertilizers on the fields. That was because he had read a translated version of a research paper about an experiment in Sweden, a country widely contaminated by radiation from Chernobyl. There for 17 years from 1992, the application of potassium fertilizers was found to inhibit the uptake of cesium-137 by low-growing perennial shrubs and four types of wild fungi.

In addition, to also help prevent cesium from entering paddy fields, Kawata advised Ito to place bags of powdered zeolite at each one’s irrigation sluice gate, as zeolites — which are aluminosilicate minerals commonly used as commercial absorbents — are known to bind well with cesium. “Zeolites have been reported in numerous scientific papers as being effective in absorbing cesium,” he said.

Ever since receiving the gamma-ray spectrometer, Ito’s group has been gathering data from every one of the 341 paddies on how cesium moved from the soil to the rice, testing not only rice grains, but also rice straw, husks, bran and embryo buds. They also compared cesium levels in milled white rice before and after it was cooked.

In addition, soil samples have been taken from six different spots in each paddy — four from near the corners and two from the other parts of the fields. Although Ito’s tests showed very similar cesium levels in the corners (termed A points) and elsewhere (B points), he found that rice harvested from A points had much higher radiation levels than rice from B points. Ito says this might be because A points are not fully dosed with potassium fertilizers because the spreaders used do not reach them when they turn. Consequently, Ito has deduced that the potassium fertilizer does indeed help to keep cesium in the soil and prevent it being taken up by the rice plants.

Furthermore, by creating a contamination map based on all these figures and studying that along with aerial photographs of the area, Ito also realized that paddies close to woodland yield rice with much higher cesium levels than rice from other paddies, regardless of the soil’s contamination levels.

“Rice contamination did not directly correspond with soil contamination,” Ito points out. “Some fields whose soil had 4,000 becquerels per kilogram of radiation emissions from cesium produced brown rice with only 3 becquerel-per-kilogram emissions, while there was a case of brown rice grown on soil with 1,000 becquerels per kilogram of radiation ending up with emissions of 10 becquerels per kilogram.”

Ito speculates it is water that accounts for the difference, as fields with a higher cesium uptake into the rice probably had “water contaminated with cesium from nearby woodlands mixing with rain water and flowing into them.”

Then, last November, after all the rice was harvested, Ito had the top 15-centimeter layer of soil in all paddies plowed under and replaced with 15-cm of soil from below it. That was to bury the surface cesium just deep enough to keep it below the roots of the rice plants. This strategy, too, was based on a recommendation from Kawata, who told Ito that it had worked for Ukrainian vegetable farmers. As a valuable bonus, too, the plowing has also helped to lower the area’s levels of airborne radiation.

“Plowing has been effective in reducing the amount of cesium in rice,” Kawata said. “I think (Ito’s group) has taken the necessary measures in the speediest manner possible.”

However, Kawata is quick to warn farmers that there is no room for complacency, since that the problem of cesium contamination is far from over. In fact, he said his biggest concern at the moment is cesium in the mountains, which have been seriously tainted by the March 2011 fallout, he said. In addition, as fallen leaves decompose into leaf mold, they produce ammonia, which is easily dissolved in rainwater that may then seep into rivers and rice paddies. Ammonia is known to draw cesium from the soil and make it more absorbable by plants, he said.

“Hence there is a chance a new wave of contamination will begin in two or three years, with a new inflow of cesium from the mountains and the ammonia accelerating its uptake into plants,” the Nagoya-based molecular biologist said.

Despite all this, the biggest challenge for Fukushima rice farmers might lie elsewhere, as distrust of produce from the whole northeastern Tohoku region is widespread among consumers.

Certainly Tetsuya Ebisudani, who oversees radiation matters at the Tokyo-based Daichi-o-Mamoru-Kai organic food distributor, and who has consistently supported J-Rap’s efforts, admits that orders for Fukushima produce remain far below the pre-March 2011 levels. Moreover, he discloses that they are even lower than last year despite separate sampling tests by the government, the producers and the distributors all pointing to lower contamination levels this year.

Ebisudani speculates that this further fall is because last year, although many consumers stopped buying anything from Fukushima, many others chose to support the area’s farmers by eating their produce. “People don’t have that sense of urgency anymore,” he said. “It will take a long time before consumers come back.”

To make matters even worse, Ebisudani says the government has made a series of missteps that have fueled consumers’ fears and distrust. He argues, for example, that the government should have set a much lower safety limit immediately after the disaster. Instead, its failure to do so gave people the impression that all foodstuffs on the market when the limit was 500 becquerels per kilogram were likely contaminated to just below that level.

Another great blunder appears to have been made a year ago by Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato, who hastily announced that all his prefecture’s rice was safe — only for it to be revealed soon after that some bags of rice from the city of Fukushima, as well as from Date and Nihonmatsu, registered in excess of 500 becquerels per kilogram.

This year, the prefectural government is testing all 30-kg bags of Fukushima rice using conveyer-belt-style radiation detectors that can screen out all bags emitting 100 becquerels per kilogram of radiation or more. So far, the tests have detected no rice — out of some 2 million bags checked — that exceeds the limit.

Again, though, this has given a fearful and skeptical public the impression that Fukushima rice may have barely cleared the 100-becquerel hurdle. That despite claims on the prefectural government’s website that radiation emissions of 25 to 50 becquerels have been registered from just 1,500 bags out of 2 million — while all the rest have registered from zero to 25.

Trust, once lost, is extremely hard to get back.

Ito, when asked about the lingering psychological barriers toward Fukushima rice among consumers, said he has never begged people to buy his rice, and he never will. “I want people to understand that we have done as much as we can,” he said in a tone combining pride, defiance and a tinge of indignation.

“We managed to keep to 3 becquerels per kilogram last year, and the figures will go down further this year. But ultimately, it’s the consumers’ choice. They can decide to buy from us — or not to.”

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