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Although the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture still casts a shadow over local agriculture a decade later, rice farmers are working to shake off radiation-related rumors and pass on Fukushima’s rice farming to the next generation.

Some are pinning hopes on an original rice brand developed in the prefecture to find a way to overcome the difficulties posed by the triple meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant. The disaster was triggered by the major earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

The annual rice harvest in Fukushima, which totaled 445,700 tons in fiscal 2010, slid to 353,600 tons in the following year and has since remained at around 350,000-380,000 tons. Although exports of Fukushima-grown rice have been increasing in recent years thanks to promotion measures by the national government, shipments to Hong Kong, for example, plunged to 2.6 tons in fiscal 2019 from some 100 tons in fiscal 2010 due to the strengthening of purchase restrictions introduced after the disaster.

All Fukushima-made rice had to undergo checks for cesium and other residual radioactive substances to secure safety. Finally, in 2020, rice grown in areas other than 12 municipalities near the accident-hit power plant was switched to random checks.

Also in 2020, rice of the “Fuku, Warai” (lucky, laughter) original brand was harvested for the first time after 14 years of development by the Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center. Of the total 37 tons harvested, the producers sold 16.8 tons via the internet and stores in the Tokyo metropolitan area, exceeding the sales projection of 15 tons. Full-scale sales of the rice, whose features include sweetness and a rich scent, will start in fiscal 2021.

Fukushima Prefecture plans to allow only farmers certified by the Good Agriculture Practice program and other selected producers to engage in the cropping of the new rice brand, in order to ensure quality and credibility.

“I take pride in producing safe and secure rice,” said Shiroyuki Terasawa, 70, who is the only producer of the new rice brand in the Hamadori coastal region in Fukushima Prefecture. “I want everyone to know that Fukushima-grown rice is tasty.”

Terasawa’s rice field in the city of Minamisoma was washed away by the tsunami. Despite worries about rumors related to the nuclear disaster, he restarted full-scale farming in 2015, out of a sense of responsibility for keeping local agriculture alive.

According to an official from the Fukushima prefectural government, some of those who initially abandoned farming have returned in recent years, partly thanks to large-scale streamlined farm operations realized through the establishment of agricultural corporations.

Terasawa also set up a corporation and started so-called smart farming, utilizing drones and GPS devices, on large-scale farmland of some 55 hectares. “Although the scenery and the environment have changed from before the disaster, I want to stay active in farming as long as I live.” he said.

Ami Endo, 23, from Minamisoma, experienced the disaster when she was 13.

“I wanted to restore the rural landscape and interactions among people in the local community that used to be common” before the disaster, she said, explaining her decision to go to an agricultural technical college and work in the farming sector.

Endo gave her father a push to resume farming although he was reluctant to begin again. They have been rice cropping together since 2019.

“I don’t see people of my age at community gatherings,” Endo said, aware that young people are moving away from agriculture.

She stays positive, however, saying: “I can learn things I don’t know from my predecessors in the community. I want to create an all-round company that will handle production, commercialization and distribution (of agricultural products).”

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