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Fukushima farmers looking for authoritative ways to shed nuclear stigma

Fukushima Minpo

In light of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis, the Fukushima Prefectural Government is hoping to find a new, faster and easier way to certify the safety of homegrown rice to ease the burden on local farmers.

The blanket radiation-screening method used in Fukushima is not known for being quick and efficient, yet the government and farmers are stuck with it for the time being until an alternative that is equally assuring to consumers can be found.

Struggling to counter misinformation about locally grown produce stemming from the core meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011, farmers are looking to the globally recognized Good Agricultural Practice system, a third-party standard that certifies adherence to the standards recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The farmers hope GAP can help convince consumers that their products are safe, and holders of GAP certification are rising nationwide.

In addition to the GAP auditing system, there is a Japanese version dubbed “JGAP” recommended by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry to verify that farmers have recorded their production processes and had their products screened and certified by designated firms and groups. As of 2016, about 4,000 JGAP certificates had been issued.

In May, the Fukushima Prefectural Government vowed to make itself the prefecture with the most GAP certificates. As of Nov. 20, Fukushima had acquired 17 GAP and JGAP certificates. The prefecture plans to acquire more than 140 certificates by the 2020 Olympics.

Separately, Fukushima designed its own verification system (dubbed “FGAP”) to reflect its experience with the nuclear crisis. In addition to the list of items inspected under GAP, such as food safety and environmental protection, FGAP adds a category pertaining to countermeasures for radioactive substances.

FGAP calls for the management of rice paddy radiation levels and for voluntary radiation screenings before shipment. To promote this GAP variation, the Fukushima Prefectural Government plans to cover all expenses linked to the acquisition and renewal of FGAP certificates.

An official from the farm ministry’s Agricultural Production Bureau called GAP an “effective method to raise confidence” in food safety.

The Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau, which assesses cost allocations for the blanket screening method, said the two systems are “different in nature but looking in the same direction.”

In 2012, the Fukushima Prefectural Government began screening all rice grown in the prefecture after excessive levels of radioactive cesium were detected in the previous year’s crop.

The number of samples exceeding 100 becquerels per kilogram — the government’s safety limit for the isotope — has dropped each year, and no samples tested since 2015 have been found over the limit.

Blanket screening costs an estimated ¥6 billion per year, and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc, which runs the Fukushima No. 1 plant, shoulders at least ¥5 billion of that. The remainder is covered by state funds.

The prefecture’s environmental protection and farm division said it is keen to speed up efforts to quell false rumors about rice contamination.

But gaining GAP certification is no small feat. For example, farmers have to clear a checklist of 209 items, though there are none pertaining to radiation measures.

JGAP, which has a checklist of 131 items, urges farmers to check the safety of their soil, water and fertilizer, in addition to their rice, via inspections or other means.

As for FGAP, 30 of its 97 categories deal with measures to address radioactive substances.

Chuji Kuroe, a 61-year-old rice farmer in Kawamata, is hardly excited when it’s time for the fall harvest.

Every year, Kuroe produces about 30 tons of rice. For the safety checks, he has to pack them into 30-kg bags for storage, which means about 1,000 bags each year. These bags are then inspected by a series of measuring instruments before shipment.

It is time-consuming to label every bag with a bar code for inspection, and carrying and preparing each one for analysis has taken a physical toll on Kuroe.

In addition, the lack of consumer and retailer awareness regarding certification frustrates many farmers.

“Despite all the trouble I went through, if the consumers do not know much about what GAP is, it will not lead to an understanding of the safety of agricultural products,” said a 57-year-old farmer in southern Fukushima.

According to the nonprofit GAP Research Institute’s survey covering about 1,000 people in Japan, 58 percent did not know what GAP is and 33 percent said they had only heard of the name. Only 9 percent said they knew what GAP was.

This section features topics and issues covered by the Fukushima Minpo, the largest newspaper in Fukushima Prefecture. The original article was published on Dec. 15.