Tohoku famers hard hit by rumors



An enormous amount of radioactive substances leaked from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station of Tokyo Electric Power Co. in an unprecedented accident when wide areas of the Tohoku region were destroyed by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. Agricultural and livestock products in the areas were polluted by the radioactivity at the time. What mattered most seriously was so-called harmful rumors. Sales fell sharply in some of those areas due to unfounded information that even unpolluted products could be dangerous. This reporter visited a farm in Miyagi Prefecture in the summer to see what the situation was at the time of the quake/tsunami disaster and what it is at present.


Soon after the nuclear mishap, radioactivity beyond the provisional regulation levels was detected from some farm products in Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma and Chiba prefectures. That prompted the administrative authorities to urge the farmers to restrict or voluntarily withhold their shipments. The problem was that these measures brought about an impact far more serious than the authorities had thought. Some other farm and livestock products that contained radioactivity less than the levels set in the Food Sanitation Act were also affected. Their handling was rejected at the distribution level, their prices plunged and consumers held off on their purchases.


Sales fell by half 



Specifically, leaf vegetable sales at the Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, little affected in the first half of March in 2011, fell to 81% of the year-earlier level in the latter half of the month and to 51% in the first half of May, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Why is the data from the Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market used here? It is because you cannot see the effect of damage caused by rumors by comparing sales data made available in Fukushima and neighboring prefectures. People who live there feel no resistance in buying farm products shipped out of the Tohoku region because they understand the actual situation of farming there and are not influenced by rumors. In contrast, many people in the metropolitan area tend to give in such rumors. Tokyo’s Central Wholesale Market had accepted most of fruits and vegetables from the Tohoku region before the disaster. Once their shipments from the region are curbed or suspended, the impact was quite visible at the market.  


This reporter interviewed Shigetaka Watanabe, representative of “Kumakko Nouen” in Sendai’s Akiu, which produces vegetables without using pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The farm grows about 70 kinds of vegetables and directly delivers a pack of eight to 12 varieties to consumers.



 While it had expanded its annual sales by 20% from a year earlier before the quake disaster, it saw sales drop to about 90% of the pre-disaster level in 2011. The damage was not serious right after the disaster. However, after the news on the hazard of radioactivity spread in June, suggesting that vegetables could be polluted, the farm had phone calls from customers asking for suspension of the delivery service.


Many of those customers were residents of prefectures other than Miyagi. Watanabe’s farm checks vegetables for radioactivity every season. But sales slowed down even while their radioactivity was well below the regulation values. He said, “We were pleased we could keep our sales in 2011 at 90% of the year before. We had been worried that the damage might be much worse.” He said his farm could hold down the damage from rumors by turning the vegetables sold for door-to-door delivery service to the local farm stands.



Uneasiness yet to be dispelled


There were times when farmers who shipped out their vegetables to the local market tried to sell them by cutting prices. Kumakko Nouen which targets individual consumers did not do that. On the situation in those days, Watanabe said, "Shifting the vegetables sold in door-to-door delivery service to the farm stands was not what I had really wanted to do." After all, that turned out to be less efficient. But the main reason he cited was the psychological damage he suffered when he had to throw away the vegetables left unsold at the stands. His farm managed to recover its 2012 total sales almost back to what they had been before the 3/11. But its door-to-door delivery sales remain slumped to this day. Three and a half years after the disaster, the farm is working hard to get back its delivery-service customers (households and restaurants) by publicizing the safety of vegetables through radioactivity checks and by routinely updating its blog.


It is not easy to sweep away the uneasiness of people who have been led to have preconceptions that vegetables from the Tohoku region may be polluted by radioactivity. Watanabe and many other farmers have been taking various measures to dispel such uneasiness. But it may take time before consumers outside the region decide to resume buying them. Famers in Tohoku are still struggling every day to expand sales to make up for the loss caused by rumors.


(Written by: Toshihiro Horibe)


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