From TERRIE’S TAKE Issue No. 759 – by Terrie Lloyd
Those of us living in Japan with kids have since the March 12th, 2011 explosion of the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 nuclear reactor, been feeling uneasy about the safety of our food supply. Reading back through issues of Terrie’s Take in 2011, you can see frequent mentions about radiation levels, where to buy safe vegetables online, and avoiding Honshu-based milk that may have been contaminated by deliberate mixing by major dairy suppliers. It was all very worrying.
The problems at Fukushima are still not resolved, and although we are now more than half way through the transfer of the spent fuel rods at building 4, this is not really a meaningful milestone, in that this reactor was already shut down before the earthquake and tsunami occurred. Instead, the real problems are with the other 3 reactors, which melted down, exploded, continue to hemorrhage radiation on a daily basis, and which may take decades if not hundreds of years to bring under control.
So is our food supply still at risk?
Last week, significantly, the Singapore government announced that with a few exceptions, the restrictions on food being imported from Japan are being lifted. The Singaporeans appear to be making a scientifically based decision that we think gives a qualified green light to Fukushima produce. Basically they are saying that fruit, vegetables, dairy products, meat, eggs and green tea products from the previously affected regions of Chiba, Ibaraki, Gunma, Kanagawa, Saitama, Shizuoka, Tochigi, and Tokyo are now safe and don’t need pre-export testing. You’ll note that Fukushima is not on this 100% safe list, yet, but seems to be in a “slightly less safe” category on its own. The announcement wasn’t clear how Fukushima was being demarcated, other than the indication that the total ban on Fukushima products is being lifted.
What was clear, though, is the produce types and sources still on the pre-testing and banned lists. Seafood and forest products sourced from Ibaraki, Tochigi, and Gunma will still need pre-export testing. Seafood, agricultural products, and forest-related products from the Fukushima control zones and some other areas will be banned completely.
We think this is a fair assessment of what is safe and what is not,and recommend that you modify your shopping accordingly. In particular, we’d still stay well away from any seafood caught in and around Fukushima.
One thing that the 3/11 disaster has done, is to accelerate public awareness of food security and safety. Japan’s concerns include food continuity (e.g., supply interruptions caused by natural disasters and global warming), food contamination such as pesticides in products from China, GMO products from the USA, local radiation and contamination problems, and the lack of interest by young people in farming.
Of these issues, the government appears to be taking care of the farmer decline by moving towards legislation that will allow corporations to own farm land. This may take a few years, but given that the average age of farmers is now 70 and there are only 420,000 full-time farmers left, it’s only a matter of time before reality overtakes politics.
More sensationalized is the threat of bad food coming from China. For the average Japanese, Chinese food represents at least three levels of threat: i) Direct contamination that causes immediate sickness. There were at least 222 food safety violations in FY2012 involving food from China, topped off by a toxic rice scare. ii) Low-level accumulative contamination, caused by things like heavy metals being absorbed by the plants and animals being grown in China. We don’t see much media coverage about this and people tolerate Chinese food that might have these problems, but the awareness is still there. iii) Continuity of supply. The fact that the Chinese are showing muscle over their dealings with Japan vis-a-vis the Senkaku islands, the expectation is that just as the supply of rare earths to Japanese manufacturers was squeezed off in the last confrontation, more basic commodities such as food supplies are also at risk. This is a very real consideration, given that Japan imported US$13.2bn of food from China, second only after the US$13.5bn it imports from the USA.
These factors, plus the fact that it’s simply cheaper, have meant that the construction of vegetable factories in Japan is on the rise. There are currently at least 150 hydroponic vege factories in Japan, more than anywhere else, and the volume of output from these operations is not only phenomenal, it is done in a controlled environment isolated from the environmental and political factors affecting the nation. So it is no wonder that there is so much investment interest.
The world’s largest vegetable factory running on artificial lighting is owned by Kyoto-based Spread Company, and is 25,200 sq. m. in size. It produces 730 tons of lettuce annually, or about 20,000 heads of lettuce a day – every day, even in winter. The factory was built in 2007 at a cost of JPY2bn, and by 2008 was producing 1,000 heads of lettuce a day. Obviously they have made big strides in efficiency since then. The owner is now planning another four factories of similar size.
The economics are sufficiently good that the nation’s major corporations are getting in on the act. This last week, Mitsui Fudosan announced it opened the second largest factory in Japan, which will produce about 5,000 vegetable items daily, every day of the year. The company spent just JPY600m building the facility, which has a floor space of 1,300 sq. m. They managed to cram more into the smaller footprint by growing the plants on ten cultivation layers, versus Spread’s four layers. The facility is expected to produce about JPY300m in annual sales – a good model for other operators considering entering the market.
Source: TERRIE’S TAKE – A weekly roundup of news & information from Terrie Lloyd, a long-term technology and media entrepreneur living in Japan. General Edition Sunday, June 08, 2014, Issue No. 759. (http://www.terrielloyd.com)