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Radiation is not the farmers’ biggest problem

May 30, 2012 Comments off

With a still damaged plant nearby nothing is “safe” in Fukushima. AP/Tepco

At least that is the conclusion a person attributing the government’s decision to allow farmers to consider selling rice from highly contaminated areas would be. The Japan Today describes a “challenge”

producing safe-to-eat rice in contaminated soil.

“Safe” is not yet defined. The equipment the government has is capable of detecting “the tiniest speck of radiation” the Japan Today says. “Safe” includes up to 100 Bq/kg of caesium-137, to say nothing of caesium-134 or the numerous other isotopes that are not screened for or entirely ignored in other foods. If the rice tests follow the same sort of testing there is little chance people will know what is in it. It is little matter, then, which equipment is used. Will there be strontium, plutonium or other harmful substances present? The closer the proximity to the Fukushima Daiichi plant the greater the possibility of greater concentrations of radiation other than caesium.

It appears that all rice this year from the farms “right next to the no-go zone, in Minami-Soma” will be destroyed, but farmers are participating with the government in the hope that they will be allowed sell their rice next year. The government is sowing false hope – to them and the public. It is extremely unlikely anything produced 12 miles away from the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl will be “safe” unless “safe” includes radioactive food. The fact is the government cannot claim radioactive food – even with low levels (say under 100 Bq/kg) is “safe” because there is little scientific data to support it. It might be safe and it might not be. Consistent exposure – especially internal – to radiation below a certain threshold is a sort of grey area. No problem. There are plenty of human guinea pigs in Japan just waiting to gobble up the samples – and farmers all too eager to sell them their fix.

“Fukushima farmers pray for radiation-free rice” Pray? To whom? Maybe the great deities in Tepco or the Japanese parliament will wave a magic wand and make their rice “safe.” In fact, maybe that same deity will go to Chernobyl and make all the radiation there disappear too. Radiation is just going to go away. It is kind of irrelevant if the rice produced has low levels of radiation anyway. Growing rice in radioactive soil is akin to growing food in a sewer, testing it and saying “there is no sewage in it.” It is an unethical, dirty and disgraceful way to bamboozle the public into buying something that people have no business eating period. The same could be said about growing food in radioactive toxic waste zones like those around the Fukushima plant.

“The balance that the government is now trying to strike is between allowing people to stay in the Fukushima area and recover their lives, and keeping the rest of Japan happy about buying food,” said the Japan Times. This illustrates the governments deception: the people in the immediate vicinity of the plant will never “recover their lives” and live the way they used to. What the tsunami and earthquake left, the radiation destroyed. They are lying to the people. “Radiation is expected to decline year by year.” Who expects this? Caesium-137, for example, has a half-life of 30 years. It is not going anywhere for hundreds of years. Plutonium? Thousands. Yes caesium-134 will go more quickly, but the land will hardly be “safe” to grow food in during anyone’s lifetime. Telling people otherwise is sowing false hope and selling food from there is possibly putting people’s lives at risk.

Why? So that some farmers can earn a living off the land? So that Japan does not have to change its unfair trading practices an import foreign foods in greater quantity? The government is not helping the farmers in the Fukushima area by trying to sell their poison. It is hurting them by not admitting the fact their plight is hopeless. It is also forcing these people to live in zones too dangerous for humans. It is joining Tepco by refusing to properly compensate these people, providing a new and safer place to live elsewhere in Japan. The farmers biggest enemy is not Tepco or radiation. It is their own government.

This is an op-ed piece submitted that does not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the editorial staff.

Japan Today article here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Food, Japan, op-ed Tags: , , , , ,

WFP may use radioactive Japanese fish to feed poor

May 26, 2012 Comments off

This cartoon was published by the IHT, under the control of the New York Times. They apologised for and removed this image in an act of self-censorship after the Japanese government complained. Is it wrong to scrutinise or refuse radioactive food? What about the possibility of giving children in poor countries radioactive food?

The Japanese government says it supports farmers and fishermen by promoting disaster area food products. As part of its efforts it is pressuring other nations to lift restrictions on Japanese food banned after concerns over radiation after the March 11, 2011 nuclear disaster

On March 22, 2012 Koichiro Gemba, Japan’s Foreign Minister, met in Tokyo with his Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Kamel Amr. They discussed easing food import restrictions along with Japanese development aid (here). The Japanese wanted “further relaxation and removal of such restrictions,” which at the times meant providing documents certifying food safety on radiation, according to Kyodo.

The Noda government has taken steps to increase purchases of fish products by selecting it for food aid. Where will the food come from? The areas affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Kyoto reported that it is “a way to dispel fears over radioactive contamination” (here). This will consist of fish products from Aomori, Iwate, Ibaraki and Chiba to be fed to children in “school lunches and other purposes,” in places like Cambodia. This will likely include sending food to the WFP (World Food Programme).

The Japanese say “certified-safe food products” will be used. The question is what levels of radiological contamination will be permitted? Japanese food safety law will permit up to 100 becquerels of caesium per kilogram for domestic consumption. What will the government do to ensure that only radiation free food reaches people in Cambodia? If radioactive food is found, even at low levels, it will only serve to undermine confidence in Japanese food, the stated goal of sending aid in the first place. Notice the food aid to the World Food Program is not to help Cambodians per se but to restore confidence in Japanese food. It is a propaganda campaign under the guise of assistance.  Why might it matter if the Japanese use fish from the areas affected by radiation?

“Of the 13 samples shown from the August 2011 test, all had measurable amounts of radiation. The lowest caesium-137 level is 50.7 and the highest is 556. This test, unlike government tests, provides additional data on caesium-134 which, if combined with 137, shows at least 4 samples above the government’s caesium limit of 500 Bq/kg. The highest combined caesium measurement is 1,053 Bq/kg.”

These are the results of a test Greenpeace conducted last August – not the one the government tried to stop. Based on the lab results conducted, they said last August, “Relying on the government’s inadequate monitoring does not guarantee people’s safety if contaminated seafood reaches the market” (lab results here & Greenpeace’s report here). Ibaraki and Iwate are areas fish products would be used to supply food to the WFP.

Things have not necessarily improved since August. A look at the Japanese government’s own tests done on Iwate fish in the winter reveals caesium levels of 0 to 240 Bq/km, in some 68 samples (see report). The standard was improved to a stricter limit of 100 Bq/kg in April. The report indicates that the majority of fish currently being tested in Japan (65% in February), contains measurable levels of ceasium-137, and may contain caesium-134 as well as any number of isotopes, some of which are not being checked.

Of the 13 samples shown from the August 2011 test, all had measurable amounts of radiation. The lowest caesium-137 level is 50.7 and the highest is 556. This test, unlike government tests, provides additional data on caesium-134 which, if combined with 137, shows at least 4 samples above the government’s caesium limit of 500 Bq/kg. The highest combined caesium measurement is 1,053 Bq/kg. Click on image to enlarge.

Greenpeace sounded the alarm last August when it said the government’s testing “is not done in a way to ensure that only safe products will be distributed.” Not only is the sampling methodology “problematic in and of itself,” but the labelling of is “very loosely interpreted.” Greenpeace says “there’s no established way of tracing where the product came from.” Consumers have no way of knowing if their fish is radioactive and, based on the law, there is no way they can be sure the sure certain foods does not come from certain waters they might wish to avoid. Companies have the option of listing a port rather than the exact location a fish was caught in, meaning two boats that catch fish in the same area can take them to different ports and they can both be listed as being caught in different locations.

For processed fish, the system is even worse, they said. Greenpeace recommended the government create tracking system similar to the one it already uses to track every piece of beef sold in Japan. This and proper labelling, Greenpeace argued, would tell people which particular area the fish were caught in, not just the port. They also suggested listing the “exact degree of contamination,” not leaving it up to the consumer to question its safety. Greenpeace’s test results, discussed on August 8th, they measured “8 types of fish…and 5 samples of seaweed.” Of the fish, all had measurable radiation. “4 samples were clearly above the limit set for consumption,” ranging from 749 Bq/km to 1,053Bq/km of total caesium count. Even more would fail the current standard of 100 Bq/kg.

Will fish with measurable levels of radiation be given to the world’s poor? There are questions of ethics involved. The current system in place is a complete failure, critics like Greenpeace argue. What assurances can the Japanese government give that there will not be scandals? The government’s incompetence resulted in beef and a number of radioactive foods ending up consumed all over Japan last year. The government insists radioactive food is safe, but after they covered up the three meltdowns at Fukushima they have no credibility in the eyes of many. If radioactive fish is fed to some poor child in Cambodia, what will that do for confidence in Japan’s products? Concern seems to only be for that and not the ethical questions if one reads the Japanese government’s statements. The Snow White cartoon the Japanese government wanted censored in the International Herald Tribune seems to be saying what many are too scared to say.

Civis Journal

Categories: Food, Japan Tags: , , , , ,

Is selling radioactive food ethical? part II

May 20, 2012 Comments off

Students must eat all the food on the plates or risk punishment. These junior high school students must finish all remaining food before being allowed to empty their trays.

Part II of a special report. Read part I here.

Some supermarkets have come up with their own guidelines. This is opposed by the government even though consumers say it gives consumer confidence. Is anyone allowed to question the Japanese government when it comes to radiation? Even those in parliament have trouble doing so.

For those who eat lunch at Japanese schools, the situation is far more difficult. There are teachers and administration officials who single out students who refuse to eat food their parents advise them not to. Some are humiliated, shamed or even bullied into eating food they consciously object to.  Students, in short, must eat regardless of whether they feel it is safe or not. One female Japanese member of the Upper House of Parliament, Akira Matsu, related the story of one a pregnant mother of four to the Budget Committee on September 29, 2011 (see here). In her comments, she said “she and all four children had tested positive for cesium,” so “she told her children not to drink milk in school lunches.” The result? The teacher forced the students to “step forward…put milk in a bucket and explain why they refused to drink it.”

This is no easy task for a western primary school student, but is magnitudes more difficult for the notoriously shy Japanese children. The teacher then shouted, “Those who refuse to drink this are not Fukushima people, and not qualified to live here either!” Matsu says, “They were treated like traitors during the war [WWII].” When Japanese government ministers in parliament heard this they began to laugh, to which Matsu replied, “Chief Cabinet Secretary, listen to me without laughing. Please don’t laugh. This is no laughing matter.” In the context of some school children studying some areas that have high levels of radiation from fallout, and increase their exposure beyond the annual recommended limit (here).

Those unfamiliar with Japanese school systems and hierarchy of power may think this is no big deal, but for Japanese students it is virtually unheard of for children to openly oppose a teacher – even rarer is one who would do so in front of an entire class. It simply is not done and, where it is, the student is often berated to the point of tears, which happens regularly when nine-year old girl cannot eat all the food on her plate and punished and forced to eat the food, even if it means missing class and spending two hours in the teacher’s room crying until she does. In such a case the child just cannot eat the food because it is too much and is not allowed to choose which plates to eat (the teachers force all students to eat the same amount regardless of appetite/size of student); this is not because of refusal due to radiation.  To further put things into context, this is a school system that openly allows children to be hit by teachers, a fact which is routinely ignored by Japanese media and education officials.

Needless to say, few students have enough courage to stand up to a teacher engaging in such bully like behaviour like the one mentioned by Matsu, who verbally berated a child for not eating food the student felt was unsafe. What happens when the bully is the teacher, the school of the Japanese government or business? What will Japanese parents and families do to protect themselves in a society that forces people to conform?

Civis Journal

Is selling radioactive food ethical?

May 18, 2012 Comments off

Farmers protest outside Tepco in Tokyo. Source: Telegraph.

Part I of a special report

The effects of the nuclear disaster have created moral problems for farmers in the Fukushima area. They, like most people, need to earn a living, and in their case such comes from bringing food to market, some of which is now radioactive. Since the Japanese government have not increased the evacuation zone (actually they decreased it from 30km to 20km see here), many of the farmers can expect little to no compensation anytime soon. Relocation to a different part of Japan to begin a new farm, therefore, is not a possibility. Those who grow food in affected areas are doing so in radioactive soil. Ito Toshihiko, an organic food supplier in Fukushima, worries about selling food in future. “How can I continue to sell my product if I’m not willing to eat it myself?,” he said to Al Jazeera. “We must protect our neighbours, our children. We can’t trust the information that we are being given [by the government]” (see here).

That leaves farmers and suppliers in zones where harvesting is allowed in a difficult position. Not only must they test food, an expensive and time-consuming process, but have to deal with the decreased marketability of their products. The burden falls on them, and they had nothing to do with the nuclear accident, they argue. Many residents of Japan no longer trust the food from areas hit by radiation. The Japanese government have been blaming “baseless rumors” or “the foreign media” for the farmers’ inability to sell radioactive food instead of looking at the cause of the real problem: radiation in the soil.

Areas like Ibaraki, which are situated close to Tokyo, have measurable levels of caesium in the rice. In August 2011 the New York Times reported at least one rice sample that had “52 becquerels per kilogram,” which was below the then 500 Bq/kg limit set by Tokyo (today’s limit is 100 here), but still had radiation. Whilst there is a lot of complacency among Japanese in general, there is a significant numbers who oppose radiation in the food. Some have begun to test food grown near Fukushima like Ichio Muto, as reported in the NY Times (here).  A smaller number shun it completely, especially foreigners and mothers with young children.

An American ex-pat David Moore and his Japanese wife “spent more than $5,000” on equipment to test soil and food, and only feed their son “purified water…and food they are certain is safe.” Mr. Moore told PBS that it is necessary to “cut the food from the market 100% until we can guarantee a certain amount of stability” (here). Mr. Moore is cognizant of the difficulties Japanese farmers face, and feels the best approach would be for the Japanese government to compensate them so that they would not be forced to choose between selling radioactive food or bankruptcy.

To be continued in part II

Civis Journal

Japanese Government wants you to eat radioactive food: Part VI

May 16, 2012 1 comment

Japanese workers with tea. Tea absorbs a large amount of radiation and tea as far south as Shizuoka has been affected by Fukushima’s radiation. Some are claiming that radiation is “harmless” and that drinking radioactive tea is “healthy.” Source: CNN

This is part VI of a spacial report on radiation in Japanese food. Click here for part V.

The situation with tea in the Fukushima area is worrisome to say the least. On March 23, the Mainichi newspaper reported  that a Fukushima resident’s tea from May 2011 measured 24,700 Bq/kg (Japanese here, English translation here). That is 49.4 times the limit of 500 Bq/kg set by the government. Though the tea was not sold and there were bans on certain food products last year, that would not necessarily affect a private citizen’s use of tea grown in his/her garden. Home gardens are quite common in rural areas and suburban areas, and school children all over Japan often go on trips to small tea fields to pick and later brew the leaves. They also pick strawberries, potatoes and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Have school children picked and eaten local produce in the Fukushima City area? What about residents who have a garden in the back yard? Have any of them eaten from their gardens? What percent of local food is in the school lunches or general diet daily? Whilst foreign governments may not worry about these questions, Japanese mothers do.

Whilst one cannot use this one elevated sample of radiation in a garden to reach conclusions about the radiological contamination of gardens in Fukushima City, one must remember that this was not an isolated incident. In December 2011, “hot spots of up to 37 microSieverts per hour in a garden in suburban Watari,” reported Greenpeace (my emphasis, article here). The data indicate that residents simply living in the area waiting for decontamination “are at risk of being exposed to over ten times the 1 milliSievert per year international maximum for radiation doses” (the range of 1mSv/year to 3mSv/year is usually considered normal background radiation, as per the NRC click here). Greenpeace refers to the government’s effort to decontaminate as “incompetent” and one that is “risking health” of residents. There have been checks of background radiation, but of the gardens? Would a blanket ban be appropriate? We do not know the answers to these questions.

A serious investigation of locally grown food might confirm the suspicion of widespread contamination (and it might not). That is, however, not what is going to happen according to the Mainichi article. Instead, the authorities are asking individuals to voluntarily bring samples to a facility (not yet in service) in future.  The Mainichi says, “The city plans to increase the number of detectors and will set up 28 testing laboratories in the city by the end of this month.” This could be interpreted as saying there has been inadequate testing of food in Fukushima City for the past year, and that there is no plan to take preventive measures to stop the ingestion of possibly contaminated foods. That such high levels have been found is hardly surprising in an area roughly 60km away from the power plant has high levels of radiation. To put it into perspective, the US government advised its citizens to evacuate to an area a minimum of 80km away from the plant (here). That means Fukushima City itself was considered so unsafe that Americans were told to leave or stay indoors; it goes without saying that food from the area would have been off limits.

The Japanese government never adopted those recommendations, and provides no compensation to residents in the area. How many people have consumed highly radioactive foods grown in their gardens in the past year?

Civis Journal

 

Japanese Government wants you to eat radioactive food: Part V

May 15, 2012 Comments off

Japanese person buying foreign water after levels of radiation spiked in Tokyo’s water supply in March 2011. Source: MSNBC

This is part V of a special series on Japanese food. Click here for part IV.

The Japanese government, shortly after, reversed its decision and eased restrictions on some foods (here), like rice and beef – and the problems have not gone away. It also changed the standards for radiation allowed in food and water, though this is a rather unknown story. In the case of water, it was done overnight, and allowed the government to claim that water, which would be considered unsafe on Thursday, was suddenly safe the next Monday. They simply increased the amount of allowable contaminants in the water supply from the older standards by 30-fold, in the case of iodine (10 Bq/lr to 300 Bq/lr; see this report for a detailed English explanation & here). This was apparently done on March 17th.

If this information is correct, it would mean the high radiation found in Tokyo’s water supply (reported en masse on March 23rd), would have failed the old standard because it had just been changed. CBS reports that one test showed “210 becquerels of iodine-131 per liter,” which they classified as “twice the recommended limit” for children,” but still below the 300 Bq/lr standard for adults. If this is correct, then the only reason the water limit was deemed safe was due to manipulation of the safety levels (here). A cynic might say the Japanese knew the water levels would rise and adjusted the safety limits in anticipation of it.

Be that as it may, the case of food is magnitudes worse (iodine in water is no longer a concern as it is an early byproduct with short half-life. In July it was reported that large amounts of beef with levels of caesium above the government’s safety standard had entered into the food chain (here). Apparently farmers had fed their cows radioactive grain, and their cows had slipped through an inadequate food screening process, ending up on the plates of people all over Japan. Some was even fed to elementary school children in their lunches (here). Though the beef scare is old news, little has improved for food in general, reports Bloomberg, which says that the current checks on Japanese food “nationwide so far are only 1 percent of what Belarus checked in the past year” (here). The government’s position at the time is that even those levels posed no short-term safety risk (yes, they usually avoided saying long-term).

The Japanese themselves have admitted to having inadequate testing equipment and personnel needed to ensure large-scale checks. The Yomiuri newspaper wrote on August 11th that “Many local governments complain they do not have time to inspect rice crops.” In Akita Prefecture, “The maximum number of food samples that can be checked a day is 10,” and the 30 private labs were inundated with other work. Yomiuri puts the numbers into perspective: of all the untold numbers of products from March 11th to the writing of the article on August 11, Fukushima Prefecture is cited as checking a total of “more than 4,000 inspections.” That number accounts for “80 vegetables…10 different fruits…90 kinds of seafood, as well as meat and eggs.” That means there were 4,000 checks for roughly 200 foods, or roughly 5 tests per food. Checking beef or cabbage on average 5 times in 6 months can hardly be expected to raise consumer confidence. As the Yomiuri points out, the checks on those foods were likely to decrease even further, as the meager resources available had to be put towards checking rice. In short, the government does not have the ability (or desire) to inspect the food thoroughly. Might this have something to do with foreign nations and their refusal to buy Fukushima affected food?

To be continued in part VI

Civis Journal

 

Japanese government wants you to eat radioactive food: Part V

May 12, 2012 Comments off

Standards for radiation have been changing a lot, and there are many unanswered questions about the health effects of low dose radiation in food. Source: AP.

This is part of a special on Japanese food. For part IV click here.

The Japanese government, shortly after, reversed its decision and eased restrictions on some foods (here), like rice and beef – and the problems have not gone away. It also changed the standards for radiation allowed in food and water, though this is a rather unknown story. In the case of water, it was done overnight, and allowed the government to claim that water, which would be considered unsafe on Thursday, was suddenly safe the next Monday. They simply increased the amount of allowable contaminants in the water supply from the older standards by 30-fold, in the case of iodine (10 Bq/lr to 300 Bq/lr; see this report for a detailed English explanation & here). This was was apparently done on March 17th. If this information is correct, it would mean the high radiation found in Tokyo’s water supply (reported en masse on March 23rd), would have failed the old standard because it had just been changed. CBS reports that one test showed “210 becquerels of iodine-131 per liter,” which they classified as “twice the recommended limit” for children,” but still below the 300 Bq/lr standard for adults. If this is correct, then the only reason the water limit was deemed safe was due to manipulation of the safety levels (here). A cynic might say the Japanese knew the water levels would rise and adjusted the safety limits in anticipation of it.

Be that as it may, the case of food is magnitudes worse (iodine in water is no longer a concern as it is an early byproduct with short half-life). In July it was reported that large amounts of beef with levels of caesium above the government’s safety standard had entered into the food chain (here). Apparently farmers had fed their cows radioactive grain, and their cows had slipped through an inadequate food screening process, ending up on the plates of people all over Japan. Some was even fed to elementary school children in their lunches (here). Though the beef scare is old news, little has improved for food in general, reports Bloomberg, which says that the current checks on Japanese food “nationwide so far are only 1 percent of what Belarus checked in the past year” (here). The government’s position at the time is that even those levels posed no short-term safety risk (yes, they usually avoided saying long-term).

The Japanese themselves have admitted to having inadequate testing equipment and personnel needed to ensure large-scale checks. The Yomiuri newspaper wrote on August 11th that “Many local governments complain they do not have time to inspect rice crops.” In Akita Prefecture, “The maximum number of food samples that can be checked a day is 10,” and the 30 private labs were inundated with other work. Yomiuri puts the numbers into perspective: of all the untold numbers of products from March 11th to the writing of the article on August 11, Fukushima Prefecture is cited as checking a total of “more than 4,000 inspections.” That number accounts for “80 vegetables…10 different fruits…90 kinds of seafood, as well as meat and eggs.” That means there were 4,000 checks for roughly 200 foods, or roughly 5 tests per food. Checking beef or cabbage on average 5 times in 6 months can hardly be expected to raise consumer confidence. As the Yomiuri points out, the checks on those foods were likely to decrease even further, as the meager resources available had to be put towards checking rice. In short, the government does not have the ability (or desire) to inspect the food thoroughly. Might this have something to do with foreign nations and their refusal to buy Fukushima affected food?

To be continued in part VI

Civis Journal