When we visited Sendai four years ago for our International Federation of Agricultural Journalists annual meeting, one thing became crystal clear about Japanese consumers: They are extremely cautious about what they eat. In a nationwide poll we reported on back then, the number one decision-making factor facing Japanese housewives in grocery stores was not taste or price, but food safety.
So, you can imagine how the escalating nuclear crisis taking place now is wreaking havoc on the Japanese psyche.
Officials have found radioactive materials in several farm products, including raw milk and spinach. Levels are several times higher than the regulations set by the food safety law, but those maximum levels are low to begin with. Even so, "consumers are worried about the safety of food," says Masaru Yamada (left), who reports out of Tokyo for the Japan Agricultural News.
Many professionals believe it is not a threat for human health, "as long as we're not eating kilos of spinach or gallons of milk a day, because the standards are very strict," he adds.
Masaru says most dairy farms in the quake-stricken area are facing difficulties in marketing their milk. There are several reasons:
-Many processing plants in the area were damaged and are still without electricity, so they can not run the plants;
-Because of a severe shortage of gasoline, it is very difficult for the plants to operate and provide trucks to collect milk;
-No feeding. Since feed companies in the area cannot dispatch trucks, many dairy farmers can not give enough food to their cows.
On top of this, the government has detected radioactive contamination in raw milk produced in Fukushima, says Masaru. "It is believed by authorities that it won't give any direct health hazard, but the level of residue was several time higher than regulation standard," he says. "It has scared Japanese consumers. It makes things very complicated, as you can easily imagine."
National security risk Japan already faced a national food security risk, well before this catastrophe. The country can only produce about 39% of its own food, but self sufficiency was never a big issue because Japan is a wealthy nation that can buy all the food it needs. It is the world's largest importer of corn. Japan accounted for 33% of U.S. corn exports in 2008-09 and 30% in 2009-10, typically importing about as much U.S. corn as the next two largest importers, Mexico and South Korea, combined.
It is also the third largest importer of soybeans and relies on imports for 86% of its wheat needs. Now there's a threat that radiation could contaminate croplands in the quake region. With some coastal grain storage facilities crippled and several rice fields destroyed, what does the future hold?
Back in 2007, Japanese Ag officials described the farm sector as antiquated and obsolete. Farms are small and few young people appeared anxious to get involved in agriculture. Rice is plentiful, but the country's diet is becoming westernized, with more fast food and pizza replacing fish and rice.
Fortunately, Japan has the third largest economy in the world, so it is not without resources, beyond the emergency relief supplies now entering the country. This natural disaster, coupled with a now more glaring national food security concern, may be what's needed to push the country to significantly invest in its agriculture sector for the long haul.
For now, though, the Japanese are coping with food fears no one would want to face – not here, not anywhere.