Tokyo: Japan`s government has announced it will ban farmers from planting rice in soil contaminated by radiation from the tsunami-flooded nuclear power plant, adding another food central to Japanese culture to the list of items raising concerns.
The ban will apply to any soil found to contain high levels of radioactive caesium, and farmers who cannot grow rice will be compensated.
So far, soil that exceeds the new limit has been found in only two places in Iitate, a village about 25 miles (40 kilometres) from Fukushima Daiichi, the nuclear plant crippled by the March 11 tsunami.
"We had to come up with a policy quickly because we are in planting season," said Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano, who announced the ban on Friday. "Following this, I want to hear the opinions of experts and local officials on how to remediate the soil."
Earlier in the week, high levels of seawater contamination around the plant prompted the nation that gave the world sushi to set limits for the first time on the amount of radiation permitted in fish. The contamination levels have since decreased after plant workers managed to plug a leak.
There has been concern about radiation in vegetables and milk, and several countries, most recently China, have banned imports of some items from Japan.
Rice grown in soil not found to be contaminated will also be checked, and the limit is the same as for fish and vegetables. The limit for soil used to grow rice will be 10 times higher because of concerns that the rice will absorb cesium during its long growing season.
Japan produced 8.5 million tons of rice in 2010, almost all for domestic consumption. It exported just 1,900 tons for sale last year, with Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan the top recipients.
Rice is revered in Japanese culture, and the word for cooked rice, "gohan”, also means meal. It`s the key ingredient in sake, and citizens proudly buy locally grown varieties. Subsidies and restrictions on imports have made Japan largely self-sufficient as a rice-growing nation — last year it imported just 664,000 tons.
Fukushima, home to the radiation-leaking plant, produced 450,000 tons of rice and was the nation`s fourth-largest producing prefecture (state) last year.
Yoshiyuki Ueda, a 47-year-old rice farmer from the town of Futaba, where the damaged nuclear plant is located, said he had already given up on trying to plant this year`s crop because of radiation fears. For now, he lives in a high school about 45 miles (70 kilometres) north of Tokyo with 1,400 other town residents who were evacuated from a high-radiation zone around the plant.
"The ground is ruined," Ueda said. "I think it will be a long time until things return to normal."
Experts say people would have to eat enormous quantities of produce or dairy before getting even the amount of radiation contained in a CT scan, but caesium is a concern because it can build up in the body and high levels are thought to be a risk for various cancers. It is still found in soil in Germany, Austria and France 25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It is also found in wild boar in Germany, making the pigs off-limits for eating in many cases.
Officials also said on Friday that they had lifted a ban on shipments of farm products grown in certain areas of Japan for the first time since the massive earthquake and tsunami, which killed as many as 25,000 people. The ban was lifted on spinach and the leafy vegetable kakina grown in Gunma prefecture, as well as on milk produced in the western part of Fukushima, farthest from the plant.