Food & Drink

Fukushima's organic farmers still battle stigma

by David Mcmahon

Special To The Japan Times

“All publicity is good publicity.” Nowhere does this specious PR maxim ring more hollow than in Fukushima Prefecture. As if the horrors of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant weren’t traumatic enough, the region’s economic and agricultural recovery has been severely hampered by the reputational damage it has suffered since 3/11. If you think that’s difficult, try farming organically in Fukushima.

Falling prices and an aging agrarian population have made things tough for farmers all over Japan, but the presence of the word “Fukushima” on a supermarket label is often enough to discourage shoppers from buying produce, organic or not, grown in the area. Regardless of how far from contaminated areas it was grown — Fukushima is Japan’s third-largest prefecture — the region’s produce can’t easily shake the stigma of radiation.

An important hub in the network of NGOs, government bodies and corporate benefactors trying to change the prefecture’s image has been Orgando, a cafe and mini-market in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa neighborhood, run with the backing of the Fukushima Organic Agriculture Network. For the past three years, Orgando has built a devoted following by serving Tokyo residents the best of Fukushima’s seasonal organic produce, in particular the crops that Fukushima is perhaps most known for: peaches, apples and rice. The menu changes daily, making creative use of the ingredients that come in, and the walls are proudly decorated with profiles of the 30 or so farmers who have grown the food. Sadly, as with many post-3/11 schemes, Orgando was only guaranteed official financial support until the five-year post-disaster milestone and is set to close March 20.

Orgando has played a valuable role in forging links between local producers and urban consumers, and dispelling the idea that all the region’s produce is dangerously contaminated — fruit and vegetables sold in the store are clearly labeled to show the levels of cesium isotopes they contain. Official food-safety guidelines stipulate 100 becquerels of radioactive isotopes per kilogram as the acceptable limit for adults, with 50 becquerels/kg for dairy produce and infant food, and 10 becquerels/kg for drinking water. The daikon, carrots and strawberries on offer this week contain no detectable cesium, while, according to their labels, bags of beans contained 6 becquerels/kg, a negligible dose of radiation compared to our daily exposure from soil and cosmic rays.

Allaying fears about contamination was one of the themes discussed during a February event in Tokyo focused on the role organic agriculture could play in Fukushima’s recovery, organized by Ryo Suzuki of Japan Civil Network.

“People mistakenly think that everything from Fukushima is dangerous,” Norio Honda of Genki ni Narou Fukushima — an NPO promoting local revival — said at the event.

Setsuko Maeda, of agricultural collective Tanemaki Project Network agrees.

“Fukushima isn’t only about radiation,” she says. “Our farming and fisheries are full of vitality, and it’s important not to forget that.”

The event gathered representatives from organizations such as Oxfam Japan, A Seed Japan and travel agency JTB, to speak about the challenges facing organic producers in the prefecture, along with some of the major success stories. The atmosphere was convivial, and the presentations were interspersed with opportunities to sample Fukushima produce, including octopus, meat, potatoes, peaches and apple juice, and high-grade junmai sake made from local organic rice, fittingly named Kiseki or “miracle.”

Another major theme was bioremediation, the use of crops to cleanse contaminated soil of radioactive isotopes. One plant that has previously been used to reduce levels of cesium and strontium isotopes in soils around Chernobyl is rapeseed. The Green Oil Project aims to re-create these results in the Futaba district around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Water-soluble cesium isotopes are sequestered in the plant’s tissues, which are fermented to produce biogas methane. The canola oil extracted from the seeds has a cesium content below the detectable limit of 0.03 becquerels/kg. To promote the initiative, local high school students created Yuna-chan, a cute mascot whose name combines the kanji for oil and rapeseed to market the organic oil. U.K. cosmetics company Lush, a keen supporter of organic produce, has also agreed to take a portion of the oil for use in its beauty products.

Ultimately, though, human connections were seen as most crucial to giving Fukushima produce the audience it deserves, and to generating an interest in farming among young people.

“It’s about exchange,” says Akihiro Asami, secretary general of the Fukushima Organic Agriculture Network. “Producers can come to Tokyo, but I want consumers to visit Fukushima, and not just meet selected farmers but ordinary residents, too. If they sample rural life there, they’ll want to get more involved to support those communities.”

Event-organizer Suzuki is positive about what the future holds: “By 2020, I really think the knowledge accumulated through the activities of farmers and NPOs in Fukushima will be ready to benefit sustainability and rural development not just in Japan, but around the world.”

For more information on Orgando, visit on.fb.me/1WsqNAz. For details about future seminars, visit ameblo.jp/suzumenomiraichi (Japanese).