JAPAN | Rice farmers, wholesalers worry about radioactive cesium tests

Posted on August 4, 2011

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JAPAN | MAINICHI | 4 August 2011

Under a cloudy sky, Akira Sudo is seen amidst his rice paddies in Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, on Aug. 3. (Mainichi)

Under a cloudy sky, Akira Sudo is seen amidst his rice paddies in Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, on Aug. 3. (Mainichi)

Rice farmers and wholesalers are uneasy about tests for radioactive cesium in rice crops and how those tests will affect shipments following the government’s announcement of testing standards on Aug. 3.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) announced on Aug. 3 standards for cesium tests on this year’s rice crop in 14 eastern prefectures that together produced 3.5 million metric tons of rice last year, about 40 percent of the country’s total yield of 8.48 million metric tons.

In Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, where rice straw feed has been suspected as the cause of radioactive cesium contamination in cows, 50-year-old rice farmer Akira Sudo pulls weeds with a grim expression. “If our rice passes the nation’s double inspections, it will allow us to promote it as safe. But it’s really tough harvesting my rice without knowing whether I’ll be able to ship it in the end.” He added, “All I can do is pray.”

Miyagi Prefecture’s Agricultural Products and Horticulture Environment Division says that the prefecture, which is the source of the renowned rice “hitomebore,” “has a duty to ensure rice safety as a major producer of high-quality rice” and the prefecture will conduct cesium tests in all its municipalities — estimated at over 200 locations.

However, “if too much time is taken on the cesium tests, rice harvesting will be delayed and quality problems such as the husks thickening could occur,” worries Etsuro Sato, an official of agricultural cooperative JA Miyagi Tome.

In Tochigi Prefecture, where soil mixed with fallen leaves from the northern part of the prefecture was found to have high levels of radioactive cesium, Takao Noguchi, 55, of agricultural cooperative JA Tochigi Chuo Kai, says, “It’s better to have more locations tested than fewer, but the more we have, the harder it is to make things go smoothly at all of them.” Because testing could reduce product quality by forcing farmers to keep their crop shipments on hold, Takao says, “We want to find ways to get the tests done quickly.”

In Ibaraki Prefecture, a major rice producer of the Kanto region, there is both anticipation and uneasiness over the tests.

Naoki Kakurai of agricultural cooperative JA Zen-noh Ibaraki says, “Passing tests conducted according to national standards will earn more trust than passing tests done independently.” Still, he appears anxious about the test results. “If shipments are banned, it will be bad for both the farmers who produce the rice and we who sell it.”

An uneasy Akira Sudo clears grass from his rice paddies in Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, on Aug. 3. (Mainichi)

An uneasy Akira Sudo clears grass from his rice paddies in Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, on Aug. 3. (Mainichi)

In Aizumisato, Fukushima Prefecture, part of the Aizu region that is second only to Niigata Prefecture in the production of high-quality “koshihikari” rice, 78-year-old Takami Suzuki takes a break from cutting grass and stares uneasily at the wavering rice plants in his paddy fields.

“Aizu is far away from the nuclear plant, but because we’re in the same Fukushima Prefecture, I wonder if consumers will listen,” he says.

Mariko Sano, chief secretary of consumer group Shufuren, notes that, “The paths rice takes to the market are complex, and for blended rice, the locations where all the rice was grown may not be clear. Labelers should make it easy for consumers to understand where the rice comes from and what the results of the cesium tests were.”

“The government’s actions on the radiation contamination problems have been reactionary, and consumers and farmers are paying the price. Rice is something we eat every day, so the government mustn’t let rice that exceeds regulatory levels make it onto the market.”

At a briefing on the tests held by MAFF on Aug. 3, farmers’ organizations, major rice wholesalers, rice husk processors and other parties were in attendance. During a question and answer session, queries were raised such as, “Where is the evidence that tests are not needed in prefectures other than the 14 designated ones?” and demands such as, “We want the government to attach certifications of safety.”

An employee of a rice wholesaler who was present at the briefing said, “We need the production side to carry out the tests properly. But even if the rice is below the tentative regulatory value of 500 becquerels, debate is still needed to decide if we as a company can treat rice that is, for example, 400 becquerels as being safe or not.”

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