Fukushima Fallout

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Initially, Japanese trade partners instituted restrictions on all food imported from Japanese prefectures affected by the disaster. Taking its cue from Japan, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has slowly eased those restrictions, eliminating Gunma, Chiba, and Saitama from the list of banned prefectures. A look at recent FDA directives reveals the challenges Japan faces, with foods from affected regions—meat, mushrooms, tea leaves, yuzu, and more—being added to and taken off the export list.

The Japanese government has been calculating losses to farmland, produce, livestock, and fisheries regularly since the disaster. As of early December, the six northern prefectures primarily affected by damage from the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster had suffered billions of dollars in losses to agriculture. Some examples include $5.15 billion in losses of unusable farmland, $180 million in destroyed crops and livestock, and $740 million in damage to the farm fishing industry. The numbers are relatively small compared with Japan’s national production but are significant for the region. Tokyo Electric Power Company—the plant’s owner—and the government have been compensating farmers for their losses, not only to ease the pain of lost assets and wages but to ensure that tainted foods don’t find their way into the food supply.

“We don’t know the full extent of the cost,” Frid maintains. “I think we are still in crisis mode.” In the meantime, farmers and scientists have been looking for solutions. One idea was to remove agricultural topsoil, in case of contamination. Volunteers helping farmers restore the soil have found that if the top layers of soil—even only 5 centimeters—are scraped away, the radiation levels are cut dramatically, White notes.

Another approach is deep tilling, which disperses radioactive material and can play a part in reducing hot spots, according to Kathryn Higley, a radioecologist at Oregon State University. Healthy soils can help bind radioactive cesium, she notes, keeping it from being taken up into plants. “I expect over the next few years, you will see substantial gains to remove materials. I think a large driver of this is that this is intensely useful farmland,” Higley contends. “That’s my speculation. They want to bring that land back into production—they don’t want to cordon it off and let it sit.”

Could Fukushima fallout—and related long-term health concerns—force Japan to fundamentally rethink the way it eats? “My guess is that it will not, that Japanese foodways will continue to be seen as healthy and important to preserve, and that the culinary mix will always contain the products and dishes of the regions of Japan,” White maintains. “Fish have already begun to show lower levels of radiation effect, well below the safety ceilings.… What might happen, however, is a rise in interest in organic and sustainable farming—already a strong influence—which will set new patterns of cultivation.… I don’t want to paint too pretty a picture, but I see recovery of the ecosystem and maybe an enhanced new picture of farming in Japan in some relatively near future.”

Pervaiz Shallwani is a Brooklyn-based journalist whose work straddles the worlds of food and hard news. He writes frequently for The Wall Street Journal and has also been published by the Associated Press, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone. You can find him at PervaizShallwani.com and on Twitter at @Pervaizistan.

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