What It is Like to Live in a Developed Nation Struggling with Food Issues

Mark Notaras has a terrific piece on what things are like in Japan, in a culture that has for several generations not had to worry too much about their food. There are useful lessons there for all of us:

But to what geographic point do people's concerns about radiation extend? Once nearby prefectures are associated with contamination, even if the contamination is confined to one small area or a few products, shoppers in Tokyo may choose to stay away from all raw or fresh products from an entire prefecture. When the Japanese government prohibited the sale of spinach from Ibaraki prefecture, south of Fukushima, this created the overall perception that produce from Ibaraki could be a health risk.

In response, community groups were quick to set up online campaigns and farmers' markets to "blow away restrained buying" and prevent under-threat farmers from losing their incomes and reputations.

The government too, in order to allay people's health fears, has been proactive in conducting tests that verify which products are safe to eat. The problem here is that the credibility of Japanese authorities generally has been undermined by their handling of the nuclear crisis, and therefore people might be hesitant to accept their advice on food safety issues. Who and what information to trust in this situation continues to be a daily challenge faced by everyone in East Japan.

Global reputation under threat

Japanese cuisine and produce have forged a reputation for sophistication and quality, arguably unmatched anywhere in the world. Tokyo has held the title of the world's premier restaurant city for four consecutive years, with a record 14 restaurants receiving three stars in the 2011 version of the coveted Michelin guide. Tokyo's rise as the world's culinary capital has coincided with growth in the popularity of Japanese cuisine, especially sushi and famed Japanese beef (wa-gyu), and establishment of the country's strong reputation as a provider of quality produce and seafood.

But the tsunami demonstrated that something established over decades can be dismantled in a few minutes. In relation to seafood in particular, the "negative perception" that a prefecture like Ibaraki is suffering within Japan is being replicated on the international stage with respect to food from all over Japan. Both foreign tourists travelling to Japan (the numbers of which have drastically slowed of course) and overseas importers are avoiding Japanese seafood in particular, even if it has been harvested from areas unaffected by the disasters. These boycotts are affecting the whole country's fishing industry that was already decimated by the destruction of over 2,300 fishing vessels and 125 harbours.

With growing doubts held by tourists, chefs and diners over the extent of nuclear contamination, it was only a matter of time before trading partners began implementing food bans. Countries including the United States, South Korea and Taiwan have all banned various foods harvested from Japan's nuclear-affected areas.

One of the things I like about this article is that it is very clear about the issues that arise from both perception and actual contamination and shortfall. Those things are sometimes separable with various strategies, but more often they are deeply intertwined.


More like this

As I was growing up back in England in the 1970's shortages of various food stuffs were quite common. I believe this was strongly driven by the generation that grew up and raised families during WWII rationing. In fact there was plenty available but all it took was for a rumour of a shortage to get going and whatever it was would disappear from shelves overnight.

I recall one period when there was a supposed sugar shortage. For weeks there was virtually no sugar in the stores and we eventually ran out. Since I was in high school in the local town my mom charged me with finding a bag of sugar. I couldn't find a bag but bought a couple of boxes of sugar cubes (intended for use in tea).

Government protestations that there was plenty of sugar and that the 'shortage' was simply caused by people hoarding it had no effect.

That weekend we drove over to my (maternal) grandmother's house. When the sugar jar for the obligatory cup of tea was found to be empty my grandmother nonchalantly stepped over to the closet and opened the door.

Inside the closest was a stack of sugar two feet tall. There must have been over 50 pounds of the stuff. I've never seen my mom so exasperated.


By NoAstronomer (not verified) on 22 Apr 2011 #permalink

Some people still do that sort of thing. We had a bit of snow last winter (not enough to interrupt food deliveries round here), and I saw people who lived within an easy walk of the supermarket struggling home with a dozen or twenty loaves of bread "in case the lorries can't get through if we have more snow next week". By which time even sliced, packaged bread would be pretty stale.

I suspect it's something that people who don't routinely contingency plan do when there's a sudden threat: they know they must do something, and this is the first something that presents itself to them. Rather than simply saying "don't hoard", we ought to be trying to teach behaviours that will provide the same sense of security with more actual practical benefits - sensible food storage and cooking in difficult conditions.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 22 Apr 2011 #permalink

NoAstronomer - I remember the sugar panic well. I also remember the bread strike. Bakers went on strike (this was the 70's, everyone went on strike!), and suddenly loaves were stripped from the shelves of shops. It was like suddenly living in Russia.

In reality of course, there was no real problem with sugar supplies - a news report had mentioned that there might be a shortage or an increae in price and loads of people over-reacted, and even the bread panic was an over-reaction. Panic buying was what really caused the problem.

My suspicion is that that even 30 years after the end of the war, there was still an automatic reaction amoungst many (and not all of them that old) that if there was going to be a shortage, then you had to get in quick or do without. Since a similar reaction is taking place in Japan right now, it might just be inate to human beings to grab that food now, lest it is gone tomorrow.

What is positive about the Japanese situation is where communities have come togeather to buy from farmers markets, etc. Local food networks are going to be important in any disaster, and by using them, local people help keep both their local farmers in business, and money in the local area.

This blog is very informative. I didnât realize how much that the recent natural disasters have affected Japan. I didnât know that the fishing industry was affected as much as it was. How does the radiation contaminate the food?

this blog is VERY informative. I didn't think that the tsunami would affect the food industry that much.

By 1011_DERRICK_R (not verified) on 27 Apr 2011 #permalink