This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on January 11, 2016
A fashionable kitchenette van in a plaza in central Tokyo.
“Here you go…one peach pizza…and a grape.”
The pizzas sold here all have one thing in common:
They are topped with agricultural produce from Fukushima Prefecture.
“Where did it come from?”
“Fukuhima. All right. Mostly where the nuclear accidents were several years ago, that is what it comes to mind first, but such
a good pizza no?.”
“Delicious! I don't mind eating produce from Fukushima myself. But we want to be careful for our baby. We use food from elsewhere, just in case. It’s a delicate point.”
In this episode, we will touch upon farming in Fukushima. The reporter is Russell Goodall.
“Rice from Fukushima. I see. It says, ‘This brown rice passed checks for the level of radioactivity.’”
In fact, Russell himself has avoided eating produce from Fukushima Daiichi NuClear Power Plant since the 3.11 disaster.
“One part of me says the food looks delicious but still some part of me says okay. Is it really really really safe?”
Farming in Fukushima received a terrible blow from Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident in five years ago.
Russell visits several young Fukushima farmers.
“It’s quite warm!”
“There’s round-the-clock automatic temperature control.”
How can farmers here sweep away the consumer fear of radioactive contamination?
To try and recover trust, they are conducting various trials.
One is to invite a French cuisine chef to give an on-site cooking lesson at the farm. Will they be able to change Russell’s mindset? We will introduce the challenges being faced by energetic young farmers.
“Don't worry! I speak Japanese.”
Russell heads first to Iwaki in Fukushima prefecture. 35km from the nuclear plant where the accident curved. One tomato producer here started recovering much sooner than other farmers.
“There is a large building middle of a field.
It doesn't look like a farm. It’s quite a strange structure.”
This is the farmer, Hiroshi Motoki.
“Can I take a look inside?”
“Sure. I’ll show you around.”
(Hiroshi Motoki: Director)
“Wow, it’s very spacious! And, it’s very warm in here!”
“Yes, there’s round-the-clock automatic temperature control.”
There are 50,000 tomato plants inside these greenhouses. 26 years ago, they introduced a European-style hydroponic system. No soil is used, and the amounts of water, fertilizer and solar radiation are computer-controlled. Every day, two tons of tomatoes are shopped nationwide.
“What was your business like after the disaster in 2011?”
“Well, we lost all the customers to ship our produce to. Day in day out, we just had to harvest our tomatoes and then discard them. I realized I should hurry up and find out just how much radiation the tomatoes that we produce here contained. That same month, March 2011, I asked an acquaintance to introduce a testing company.”
The first test was carried out just 10 days after the nuclear accident.
Ever since then, the tomatoes have been tested on a weekly basis.
All the results have been well inside the national standards.
“My first feeling was great relief that we could continue doing our farming.”
“Oh, I can hear some kids!”
“They are Elementary school children.”
After the disaster, Motoki initiated a project to encourage consumers to visit his farm.
The number of visitors has now grown
to about 100,000 a year.
“Consumers finally feel reassured when they observe our cultivation method with their own eyes, and hear about the test results. For the first time, they can feel confident. However, not every consumer has the time to come here like you, Russell.”
“So they can only make judgments based on the limited information available. As a result, it’s still very difficult to sweep away consumers’ distrust of our produce.”
“They will make you effort to try and see like a devil checking system. So the figures there, I don’t doubt, are true. But how I take that, and how anybody takes that is up to us.”
It seems that farming in Iwaki has been steadily recovering, but how about the overall situation across Fukushima Prefecture?
Russell next visits Professor Ryota Koyama, an expert who is well informed about the relation between radioactive contamination and farming in Fukushima.
He has conducted many field tests himself and created a map of the radioactive contamination level. He has also visited Chernobyl several times and has been conducting research on the issues surrounding farming in Fukushima and its potential.
“We may not understand very well what becquerels are, but we kind of understand if things meet the standards or not. So, frankly speaking, would you say the food produced in Fukushima is safe?”
“I’m 100% sure that no produce with above 100 Becquerels per kilogram will be distributed.”
(Professor Ryota Koyama: Doctor of Agriculture)
The national radioactive cesium standard differs in each country. The standard in Japan is the severest, at 100 Becquerels per kilogram. Any item with a level above that figure cannot be shipped out.
“Even though the national standard is 100 Becquerels, the farmers and producers in Fukushima want to bring it down close to zero.”
Many farmers have worked hard to reduce theradioactive contamination of their produce. One way is to spray potassium.
When potassium is sprayed over fields containing a lot of radioactive cesium, the plants prioritize the absorption of the potassium over cesium, thereby reducing the amount of cesium absorbed.
In most areas of Fukushima, apart from the highly contaminated areas, farms have recovered to the level where produce can be shipped out.
“As you can see, produce in those areas now meets the national standards. This result could be attained within five years because the half-life of cesium 134 is two years. But unless we can pass this kind of evidence on to consumers, many of them will remain unconvinced that the produce is really safe five years after the disaster.”
“I learned more about how Fukushima came to the evidence, how they got to those figures in the 5 years or whatever. Based on that I feel much more safe. And It’s something that, obviously my knowledge has changed, which has changed my attitude as well.”
Thanks to the efforts made by the farmers and thorough testing, the shipping volume of their produce is now getting close to its pre-disaster level.
However, a 2015 survey reported that around 20% of the respondents said that they still avoid produce from Fukushima.
How can consumer trust in the produce be recovered?One young farmer rose to the challenge. Russell now visits Ishikawa-machi in the southern part of Fukushima.
A farmer here has succeeded in increasing sales using a unique method.
This is Yoshitaka Ohno.
“Don’t worry. I speak Japanese!.”
Yoshitaka produces fruits such as apples and peaches on his family farm. With an area of 7 hectares, these are the biggest orchards in the region.
Thanks to excellent soil preparation, the quality of their produce is highly recognized.
Yoshitaka was living in Tokyo before the disaster. He decided to return home to Fukushima after receiving a phone call from his father six months after the disaster.
“My father’s not the type of person who complains a lot. But then he suddenly called me and told me that things were very hard. That was all he said. He didn't explain how hard his situation was.”
Yoshitaka returned home only to find an incredible amount of unsold fruit. Regular clients had stopped ordering and prices were being beaten right down at market.
Sales had declined to one third of what they had been before the disaster.
Yoshitaka started heading to cities in person to try selling the produce. But he was faced with the deep-rooted distrust of consumers.
“I handed a cup of peach juice to a girl to taste. And her mother said, ‘Where does this come from?’ I told her it was from Fukushima. Her face clouded over immediately. She grasped the girl’s hands so she couldn't drink it. Then the mother threw away the juice, and took her daughter over to a sink to wash her hands. That was the first time for me to experience reputational damage. Yes, it was the very first time.”
This is Yoshitaka’s father, Takashi. He has run the farm for over 40 years. But after the disaster he was faced with a hardship that he had never experienced before.
“You can’t harvest them if the bottoms are still green.”
“They have to turn it yellow?”
“Right. They’re sweet, but don’t have much body.”
“What was the damage like after the disaster?”
“I sent a box of peaches with a test result to a customer. And he called me saying, ‘Have you tested each one of them?’ I replied, ‘I won't have any left if I test them all!’”
“That’s so true.”
“That’s just an example. Now I can joke about it, but at the time it was really horrible.”
Yoshitaka came home to support his father. He decided to reform the style of their business. But before we go into details. Yoshitaka looks rather cool, does not he?
That is not surprising because he worked as a model in Tokyo in his 20’s. It was that experience that provided a hint on how his family might be saved.
“You should look happy as much as possible. I really think that will give a positive impression to the people around you. I think impression is very important.”
Based on that belief, he decided to change the design of their boxes. Instead of using a picture of a red apple, he changed to a simple monochrome design using ringo, the Japanese word for ‘apple’.
“I didn't want to make it obvious with a drawing. You don’t know whether it’s apples or peaches. You discover when you open the box, and say, ‘Wow, these are from Grandma!’ If you feel that way, both the sender and the receiver will be very happy, I think.”
The box design became a topic on the Internet, and they started receiving lots of orders.
“Before, we had few young customers. But young consumers in their 20’s and 30’s started contacting us, saying, ‘Please send us some apples in that cute box.’”
Yoshitaka moved on to realize his next reform idea. Wanting consumers to become more familiar with agriculture, he decided to hold various events. One of them was to invite people to visit their farm when it was beautiful with apple or peach blossom. But one person was suspicious about the idea. It was his father, Takashi.
“I couldn't understand him at all! Planning blossom-viewing events at the farm at the busiest time of year! So we had many arguments. It’s been 3 or 4 years since then, and the number of visitors keeps on increasing. They come here to enjoy the blossoms or for barbecues.”
“You’d never have such an idea?
“Of course not! I can only focus on growing fruit on this big farm.”
Much to the unease of the senior Ohno, the farm has continued to attract more and more people.
Most of them come from Tokyo or other parts of the Kanto region. The reputation of the Ohno Farm spreads by word of mouth.
“This is actually a farm where crops are grown. However, having a chef come here turn it into a restaurant! I’'d like everyone to enjoy apple as a main dish instead of just as a dessert.”
Yoshitaka started inviting a famous chef of French cuisine to present brief cooking lessons. Through finding new ways to eat fruits, consumers get even more interested in them.
“Delicious! So good!”
Yoshitaka then took an even more aggressive action. He started operating a kitchenette van to serve pizza. And he himself became a pizza chef.
As a topping, he uses apples that are in season on his farm. And he tries to make it look fashionable to appeal to young customers. Yoshitaka’s aim is not to generate profits.
“We run an apple orchard When you have time, please visit our farm. We arrange tours. This is me!”
He hopes customers who enjoy his pizza will spread information about Fukushima. Today all of the 200 pizzas he prepared are sold.
Apples are not the only ingredient he uses. He also uses other fruits and vegetables from more than 40 other farms in Fukushima he has a contract with.
Several farming colleagues support Yoshitaka’s project. Spinach producer Takashi Yoshida is one of them.
Right after the disaster, radioactive material above the national standard was detected in spinach harvested in Fukushima. So a ban was imposed on the shipping of spinach from the entire area of Fukushima. Yoshida was one of those affected.
This video was shot by Yoshida at that time.
“We mainly grow spinach in greenhouses, but also cover crop them by mulching. We have to remove all the spinach by hand. It’s such a shame.”
In fact, the level of radioactive materials contained in the spinach Yoshida was growing was safely below the national standard. But he still could not avoid discarding his crop.
The volume of spinaches throw out the amount to 100 tons into 3 months.
“If only I could sell these! They’re a really good size. It’s such a waste!”
“It was ironic that the spinach that had to be discarded was so nice and in good condition. But no matter how great they were in quality and condition, we had no choice but to cut them and scrap them. I remember that everyone, including me, our president, and all the workers were in tears.”
Three months later, Yoshida was able to resume shipping. But he constantly had to emphasize the safety of his crop to customers who were hesitant to buy. Sales have now recovered to around 80% of what they were before the disaster.
Through the kitchenette van project, Yoshitaka has established a connection with other young farmers. The farmers of Fukushima suffered a great deal after the disaster. Each one tried to come up with some unique way of selling their produce. Now they are trying to combine forces to enhance the brand power of Fukushima.
“It’s nice for consumers to compare different produce. If different types of sake or food come in one box, customers can enjoy comparing them.
“Yes, we could do that with apples if other producers send theirs to Ohno for packing in one box.”
So one of the ideas is to pack the produce of different producers in the same box.
“The idea is not to compete with one another, but to increase the appeal by combining different brand items in one box. I think that having several producers cooperate to package their produce together is unprecedented.”
In this way, the network of farmers who have become connected since the disaster is now aiming to create a stronger customer appeal.
Hiroshi Motoki, a tomato producer in Iwaki, has also taken a new step forward. He wants to prevent the number of farmers from declining.
He has launched a project involving a large-scale facility where visitors can experience farming. Right next to a big farm, a restaurant and a vegetable store will be established.
He hopes to create a place where aged farmers can re-energized and young farmers can feel real hope.
“If farmers disappear from this area, the fields will get desolated and overgrown with weeds. The beautiful scenery unique to the countryside will disappear. I feel this way because I regularly visit the restricted areas. I see fields that used to be very beautiful now ruined and filled with weeds. In just a few years, abandoned farms become a wasteland, and that’s a great shame. I’d like to convey this message to the consumers who are the other side of the production equation.”
At the Ohno Farm, it’s the busiest time for harvesting. Recently, Four young people have started working at the farm. And the farm’s regular customers are coming back.
“I'll give these to my neighbors as a gift! We came a long from this.”
After returning home, Yoshitaka initiated a cheerful farming strategy. At the beginning, his father was firmly against his ideas. But, Takashi, please feel assured that the young people are persevering to improve the situation!
“Your son grew up in a different generation, that’s why he could come up with a design like this!”
“I was so surprised to see it at the beginning. Our image of an apple box was one with a picture of an apple!”
(Takashi Ohno : Yoshitaka’s Dad)
“One day, my dad challenged me about using the conventional box for apple juice. He asked me why I wasn’t using our new box or designing a new juice box. I never imagined he’s say something like that! Before, he would never suggest spending money on boxes or things like that. That’s the way he was. So I was really impressed when he said we should design an original box for juice as well.”
“Have you changed?”
“Well, he made me change!”
“A couple days ago, before I came to Fukushima, maybe I still had hesitation towards eating food here. But when I came here and I realized that, It was the way beyond that, not only there have been delivering information that it is safe but also good to eat as well. The vision of agriculture of how it should be for Fukushima and for all of Japan, was they are looking far more heading to the future than the rest of us I think in Japan.