A Japanese farmer works his paddy fields 40 kms from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011

I first met Yauyuki Fujimura a few years before the 3/11 disaster, when I was writing Just Enough, a book about traditional Japanese approaches to sustainability. Fujimura is an engineer and inventor a quite successful one with many patents to his name. An outspoken eccentric, he had decided to purchase a large plot of land surrounding a small lake in NasuShiobara, in Tochigi Prefecture, and build what he called an “alternate energy theme park.”

Fujimura is an opponent of nuclear power, but he goes further, designing appliances and other devices for daily use, like refrigerators, dehumidifiers, stoves and lamps that do not require external sources of electricity (and often none at all), in an attempt to help society wean itself off any kind of centralized power generation. I visited his “theme park,” which he had named “Hi denka Kobo,” or “Atelier Non electric,” and found it to be charmingly improvised, a bit ramshackle in parts, and like Fujimura, brilliant and eccentric.

When I heard after the disaster that Nasu had become a radioactive hotspot, with radiation levels similar to those of much of central Fukushima, I went to visit Fujimura the first chance I got. His living room was strewn with expensive high end radiation detecting equipment, like high spec scintillators and portable nuclide monitors, as well as textbooks and printouts on radiation. During that visit, he laid out his plan for helping Nasu, one that depended on using local expertise, with local farmers taking control of the measurement, decontamination and education processes. He told me he had gotten 50 farmers to join him.

Today, the citizens’ group, an NPO called Nasu wo Kibo no Toride no Kai, (Make Nasu a Bastion of Hope), has about 500 members, with close cooperation among producers and sellers. Their standards are much stricter than the government's 100Bq/kg maximum allowable level for cesium in food. “At first,” explains Fujimura, “some of our members were insistent that cesium levels had to be reduced to zero. But I told them if that was the only acceptable level, there was nothing we could do. But my research had shown that it would be possible to reduce it to 37Bq/kg for almost all products, so if they could live with that, then we could continue farming in Nasu. That became our target.”

The results have been just as Fujimura predicted. Based on their experience, the group has published an extremely thorough and informative guidebook to help farmers elsewhere. The techniques include removing topsoil, adding potassium to inhibit cesium uptake in the plants, and most importantly, carefully matching the natural cesium uptake ability of the plants to the specific conditions of each farm plot.

Daikon,” he explains, “doesn’t absorb much cesium at all, and it can be grown in soil with 10,000 Bq/kg of cesium or more and still end up with no more than 37Bq/kg. Same for tomatoes, rice, and a few others. Pumpkin, cauliflower, and cabbage can be grown in ground with between 1,000 and 3,500 Bq/kg of cesium with similar results. But forget about trying to grow mushrooms or blueberries in even slightly contaminated soil.”

At present, he says, local farmers are successfully growing almost every crop at their own stringent levels, except mushrooms, bamboo shoots and mountain vegetables (sansai), which they’ve given up on. “One local association has been successful at implementing a 5Bq/kg limit for the rice it sells,” says Fujimura, “It’s really not that difficult to do, particularly when the rice is polished. The bran (nuka) retains cesium, but the white grain itself doesn’t.” Fujimura considers Fukushima Prefecture’s claim that less than 1 percent of the rice grown there has measurable cesium to be completely plausible, based on his own two years of experience.

Since March, 2011, farmers through out the affected region, and particularly in Fukushima Prefecture, have been learning how to grow uncontaminated food even in contaminated soil, and can point to quite a few successful experiments. Yuki no Sato, an organic cooperative in Towa, Nihonmatsu, reports that over 90 percent of the area’s key crops now have cesium levels lower than 10 Bq/kg.

Similar independently verified examples have been presented by farmers all over the prefecture, who consistently report more success than failure enough to dub it the “Fukushima Miracle.” But their success stories are invariably coupled with persistent gloominess about their future prospects, because the name “Fukushima” has become so tainted by the disaster that it is hard to sell their food, no matter how little contamination tests show it to have.

Unbelievable as it may sound, food well under the official 100Bq/kg limit is being grown even in Iitate mura, one of the most highly contaminated areas. Once home to over 6,000 residents and a leader in ecological development and “slow life” sustainability, Iitate is now empty except for a dozen or so holdouts. One of them is Nobuyoshi Ito, an engineer who relocated to Iitate in 2010 to open a retreat and seminar center where corporate employees, particularly those who work with technology, could experience farming and working with their hands.

The center was in operation for barely a year when the disaster occurred. Since then, Ito has been extremely active, often clashing with local government officials, whom he feels are publicly underestimating the risks and challenges of resettling the town. Like Fujimura, he has experimented with growing food in contaminated soil, and has found considerable success. “In a hothouse in Iitate,” he says, “I’ve been able to grow many things like cucumber, eggplants and tomatoes that have no detectable cesium at all, and green beans that had only 33Bq/ kg Cs 134-137 combined.”

He also carefully measured the contamination levels of 15 outdoor fields, and tried growing different crops. “In soil with 12,000 to 25,000 Bq/kg of cesium, I’ve been able to grow spinach, potatoes, sweet potatoes,” he says, “and other things with only 30-60Bq/kg. And that was in 2011. The contamination levels are lower now.” He considers his rice, with 30 Bq/kg or less, safe enough to eat.

Despite these results, neither Ito nor his elderly neighbor Megurosan, who also continues to tend a few of his fields in Iitate, is very optimistic. “Rivers continually carry contaminated soil down from the mountains, and it collects in irrigation ponds,” Ito explained. “Even if fields are successfully decontaminated, they’re not decontaminating the mountains, and there will be a continuous supply of new contamination through the watershed. Farm fields don’t distribute it evenly, so every field ends up with patches of high and low cesium content.”

But beyond that, he pointed out, “It will be decades, I think, before outdoor radiation levels are low enough for people to work all day long without health risks. And who will buy our rice anyway? Japan has a rice surplus now and people will avoid ours even if it measures safe.”

The Fukushima farmers may have much to learn from another disaster area. Since shortly after 3/11, representatives from Minamata, the city that suffered an environmental disaster from mercury poisoning, have been visiting Fukushima. They’ve also been sharing their experiences in symposia and meetings all over the country, hoping to help Fukushima residents gain redress and plan for the future.

There are many parallels between that industrial disaster and this one. By 1997, the ocean off Minamata was demonstrably clean, and repeated testing of local seafood showed that it was as safe as any other allowed onto the market. But their market had collapsed. The name “Mina mata” simply had too many negative associations, and all the reassurance in the world could not reverse the damage.

So Minamata reinvented itself, and leveraged its experience of the disaster into many kinds of relevant expertise. It is now a model city, focusing on new energy, eco tourism and many new industries. Most of these are environment related, including sustainable urban development, forestry, food and education. The name “Minamata” is increasingly associated with “environmental awareness.” Maybe it’s time for Fukushima to reinvent itself as well.

Quite a few Fukushima farmers have already quit and moved away. And regardless of how successful remediation of farmland might prove, demographic realities, specifically the lack of young people who want to continue farming, will continue to make the choice difficult. The local market for tested and approved food will probably remain, so farmers can expect some future income from food, and to be able to eat what they grow.

But the most promising possibility would seem to be shifting over to non food agricultural products. Growing corn for bioethanol is one idea; in fact Ito proposed this to the Iitate town council and found support, while farmers in Tomioka have also been experimenting with the process. Fiber products for industrial use could also be grown. Other plants, like rape (nanohana) can be grown for oil extracted from the seeds which can be used to make biodiesel, and other parts of the plant can be used to generate biogas. There are also possibilities for hemp, reeds, textiles, organic abrasives, waxes and biomass, to name a few.

For even these efforts to prove successful, however, many concerns about testing, waste products and continued consumer concerns will need to be fully and transparently addressed. In a short span Fukushima has painfully developed a shared base of valuable knowledge and experience regarding food safety and in the interactions between radioactivity, soil, and plants.

Fukushima could take advantage of this expertise and the interest worldwide, flip its injured name value, and actually become a global hub for learning about and promoting food safety, biofuels and ecologically sound restoration of damaged farmland and watersheds. Once damaged, a reputation may be fragile and elusive, but it can be restored. And one day, maybe, people will be happy to buy Fukushima’s food again.

Some facts & figures

Fukushima Prefecture reports that between Aug. 25, 2012 to July 9, 2013:

  • Over 10.3 million bags of Fukushima rice were monitored for radiation, in order to clear them for market.
  • 71 of these, or 0.0007 percent, were above 100Bq/kg limit and were stopped from sale.
  • 1383 (0.01 percent) had between 51-75Bq/ kg; 20,251 (0.2 percent) between 25-50Bq/kg

Fukushima Prefecture reports that between Aug. 25, 2012 to July 9, 2013:

  • Nationwide: 87,693 items tested; 372 (0.4 percent) were above 100Bq/kg limit.
  • Fukushima Pref.: 10,655 items tested (including meat, fish, milk, wild plants and animals); 241(2.2 percent) above limit.
  • Fukushima Pref., agricultural produce only: 3211 items tested; 102 ( 3 percent) above limit.

While the Japanese 100Bq/kg limit for cesium in food is the strictest in the world, some insist that it is still too high. This in itself is worthy of a lengthy debate, and while controversial, just about everyone agrees that less is better.

Extensive information about food testing and reported results, as well as links to online sources consulted in the preparation of this article, both official and independent, can be found at the Number 1 Shimbun online site.

Azby Brown is director of the Kanazawa Institute of Technology’s Future Design Institute and a volunteer at Safecast, the radiation monitoring group.