Editorial: Contamination of agricultural products requires stronger monitoring of soil and water

Farmers are feeling helpless. They can do nothing but leave their vegetables in the fields after laboring so hard to grow them. Their cows must be milked every day, and yet that milk must be discarded.

The radioactive materials released in the atmosphere from the troubled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have been detected in agricultural products from four prefectures, including Fukushima and Ibaraki, and shipments of these products have been stopped. This must surely be a crushing experience for the farmers involved. The tragic news that one conscientious farmer, who had long been devoted to producing safe products, has committed suicide highlights their plight.

If farmers cannot sell their products, they earn no income and they lose their livelihood. Even though they cannot ship the raw milk, they must continue to buy feed for their cows. Compensatory measures, to support these farmers, must be promptly pursued.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) bears the responsibility to compensate the farmers, but the company is consumed with the ongoing crisis at the nuclear power plant and its rolling blackouts. The national government has already begun discussions to provide compensation to the farms on behalf of TEPCO, which would later be required to reimburse the state. Considering the farmers’ deep anxiety, there is no time to lose in implementing the necessary measures.

The market prices of agricultural products from the Kanto area, including tomatoes, green peppers, and lettuce, have also suffered a general drop in value, although the shipment of these products is not banned. But rumors of contamination result in this sort of harmful consequence. We must not add further burdens on the shoulders of struggling farmers.

The items and numbers of agricultural products to be tested are not the same among local governments, partly due to the shortage in radiation monitoring devices. In order to reassure consumers, a thorough monitoring system to check the level of contamination must be put in place as soon as possible so that no contaminated food is circulated in the market. The national government must exercise leadership in this, too.

The scope of areas from which agricultural shipments are banned must be reviewed. Fukushima Prefecture stretches 160 kilometers from east to west. Banning shipments of all agricultural products from the prefecture may weigh too heavily on farmers.

The products grown in greenhouses and those grown in open fields may be affected to a different degree. Securing the safety of the agricultural products in the market must be the highest priority, but banning safe shipments by lumping everything together is also a questionable move.

The season for planting rice and cultivating fields will soon arrive. If the nuclear crisis lingers without resolution, the radioactive contamination of the soil will be of great concern. In this event, the contaminated soil will have to be replaced with safe soil. Unless the national government indicates how it plans to handle these possible scenarios, the anxiety of farmers will only grow.

Under these circumstances, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigated the soil in Iitate-mura, Fukushima Prefecture, and found a higher level of radiation than the safe level set by IAEA. A large part of Iitate-mura is located outside the 20 to 30-kilometer zone, in which residents have been told to stay indoors.

As the IAEA investigation was conducted at only one location in Iitate-mura, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said, “Although this level will not have any immediate health effects, we must consider what action should be taken if the situation is prolonged.”

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fishery and Forestry says that it will test the soil of rice fields at about 150 different locations and set a standard to indicate a safe level for rice planting. But there are doubts that 150 locations is sufficient. In addition to rice fields, vegetable fields and agricultural water must also be checked.

The ministry said, “We cannot check more than 150 places because of the availability of equipment and manpower.” This is preposterous. If help is needed, they should ask for the support of other ministries and from overseas.

The scope of radioactive contamination is affected by various factors including the direction of the wind, rain fall, and geographical features. The locations to be tested must be carefully chosen, and continuous monitoring is needed. Considering the possibility of prolonged contamination, planning ahead is vital.

(Originally published on April 1, 2011)