Radiation worries hit Japan’s farmers hard

By David Dolan

FUKUSHIMA CITY, Japan (Reuters) – On his farm on the rural outskirts of Fukushima City, 73-year-old Akio Abiko digs up burdock roots and worries about the future.

For now, he is donating the roots to a nearby evacuee center, to garnish rice and help feed those who have fled from the crippled Daiichi nuclear plant about 70 kilometres (53 miles) away.

But Abiko and other local farmers wonder if anyone outside this part of northeast Japan will ever again want to buy produce from Fukushima.

Abiko used to sell carrots, potatoes and other vegetables from his 3,000 tsubo (9,900 square meter) farm to Tokyo. But the chances of that now look unlikely.

“Grown in Fukushima” has become a warning label for those nervous of radiation which has already been found in some vegetables close to the nuclear plant savaged by last month’s earthquake and tsunami.

“There is no way we will be able to sell anything,” he said. “People in Tokyo are just too sensitive about this kind of thing.”

A group of farmers came to Tokyo from Fukushima at the weekend, using Geiger counters to show their produce was safe.

Japan’s worst crisis since World War II, with the authorities still trying to bring the damaged reactors under control, has sparked widespread fears about the safety of its food.

The radiation worries are likely to put a further squeeze on farmers in northeast Japan, where the economy has been on a steady decline for years, hit by a falling birthrate and a rapidly aging population.

Japan is already home to some of the world’s most demanding consumers, who inspect freshness, quality of packaging and place of origin with almost religious zeal.

Even the most run-down markets separate produce by the place where it was grown. At a modest fruit stand in a Fukushima truck stop, all the produce was clearly labeled: apples from Aomori, bananas from the Philippines, mushrooms from Yamagata.

JUST KEEP WORKING

When asked about the outlook for business this year, Takao Watanabe leans against his white truck and just laughs. The apple and peach trees around him show little signs of fruit, but he already knows the outcome.

“This year will be no good. Just because it is from Fukushima.”

The 52-year-old Watanabe owns an orchard not far from Abiko’s farm. He used to sell more than half of the fruit outside Fukushima.

“You can’t worry about it. That won’t make it any better. There’s not a damn thing we can do except keep working.”

Fukushima produced just a sliver of the total carrots and radishes harvested in Japan in 2008, according to the latest data available from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. But, it harvested 4 percent of all the apples that year and a whopping 20 percent of all the peaches.

Some consumers in Fukushima are supporting their local farmers, for now.

“I think the vegetables are still okay, and I’m still buying them,” said 53-year-old Takashi Endo, who carried a bag full of vegetables out of small market run by Japan’s union of agricultural cooperatives in Koriyama City, about kilometres from the reactor.

“But I’m worried about the long-term effects. I’m concerned about the next harvest of peaches and apples.”

Unlike a standard supermarket, those run by agricultural cooperatives are even more precise in their labeling, breaking down the place of origin to smaller districts.

That is enough to reassure 70-year-old Takashi Uchida, who walked out of the Koriyama shop with a large radish tucked under his arm.

As long he avoids districts close to the Fukushima plant, he feels secure, he said.

Watanabe reckons the next three years will be lean ones.

“We’re just going to have to tough it out until everyone forgets about this.”

(Reporting by David Dolan, editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

Radiation worries hit Japan’s farmers hard