SACRAMENTO, California — Ten years ago, Japan was ravaged by an earthquake that triggered a tsunami and a nuclear disaster that killed and displaced thousands, creating millions of dollars in damages and contaminating large swaths of Japan, primarily in Fukushima. The recovery has been slow and painful, yet a sliver of hope and good news can be found in the return of farming in Fukushima.
On March 11, 2011, three disasters hit the Japanese nation. It began around 2 p.m. when the Great Sendai Earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 struck nearly 80 miles off Sendai Miyagi’s coast in the Pacific Ocean. The earthquake was one of the most powerful in history. A series of tsunamis, including a 33-foot wave that struck the city of Sendai, soon followed that devastated the east coast of Japan.
The death toll and destruction from these two natural disasters were staggering. Nearly 20,000 people died, with millions of buildings destroyed. Nonetheless, some of the most significant long-term effects resulted from a nuclear disaster that the tsunamis and the earthquake caused at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in the town of Okuma. Although the atomic reactors efficiently shut down after the seismic disruption, they proved vulnerable to the tsunamis as the water knocked multiple backup generators offline. Without the backup generators, a nuclear meltdown occurred in three reactors and radioactive material flowed into the surrounding territory.
Although no deaths were reported immediately following the nuclear meltdown, the radiation has made the surrounding area dangerous. Overall, the initial exclusion zone was more than 230 square miles surrounding the plant and an additional 80 square miles of land in the fallout’s path was dangerous. The total area later increased to 311.15 square miles. Although in 2017 the zone had shrunk down to 143 square miles, few people have chosen to move back and local biodiversity has suffered dramatically.
Resilient Farming in the Region
Although once considered one of Japan’s top agricultural production areas, Fukushima’s farming suffers due to the effects of the disaster. After 2011, the hectares of cultivated land decreased by 10,000. Even ten years later, radioactive topsoil still exists on large swaths of the land. The number of farmers has also decreased as 30,000 fewer people claim farming as their primary income source.
However, the Japanese government has fought to improve conditions for farmers. The government has spent around $27 million on decontaminating and replacing the soil. Much of the contaminated soil has been recycled and used under roads and bridges across the country. Additionally, the Japanese government has developed an extensive program to test food for radioactivity. This program began in 2011 and limits food to 100 becquerels, a scientific measure of radioactivity.
Although farming in Fukushima has yet to reach its pre-disaster levels, there have been significant inroads. After spending millions, cesium concentrations in the soil have dropped by around 80%. As a result, since 2013, almost no items, except wild mushrooms and vegetables, exceeded standards. Out of more than 10 million bags of rice, only 71 tested above the limit in 2012 and none have since 2015. Consequently, 90% of Fukushima’s agricultural production value has recovered after it dropped by 20% shortly after the disaster.
The Farmers’ Role
The government’s work has been invaluable. In conjunction with the state’s efforts, farmers have put in noteworthy levels of work to reclaim their lands and occupations. For instance, in the village of Odaka, after a year of decontamination efforts by the government, villagers began visiting during the day to clean up the village, repair damage and cultivate crops to test radiation levels. Farmers also held hundreds of meetings to decide how to prop up agriculture in the area.
Similar stories happened in villages or towns across the prefecture. Many farmers still face complex challenges with less cultivated land, workers and an overall stigma surrounding Fukushima’s produce. Yet, these challenges are being met head-on with new technology. Whether it is the use of radiation testers to test for radioactive soil or drones, GPS devices or remote operating systems to streamline farming practices, innovation helps the reduced farmer population make up for the loss of output and customers.
Labels against Stigma
Moreover, in conjunction with researchers and non-profits, farmers have also found innovative ways to deal with biases against produce coming out of Fukushima by restoring confidence in products from the region. Researchers in the region have collaborated with farmers to create a label for products that states that researchers worked with farmers to grow the food. Additionally, the non-profit Resurrection of Fukushima has prioritized alternative products, like award-winning sake, to recreate trust in the products.
Although the 3/11 disaster devastated the region and farming in Fukushima as a whole, the prefecture has made major strides in the last decade to rebuild the region. With the help of the Japanese Government, technology and other actors, farmers have taken on all the issues resulting from the disasters head-on. After being non-existent nearly a decade ago, farming in Fukushima once again shows signs of life.
– Vincenzo Caporale