Shunned at home, Fukushima fruit farmers turn to Southeast Asia for turnaround

Toshiyuki Saito still manages to smile as he carefully packs his products that are banned in some overseas markets and the subject of health scares in Japan.

“It excites me just wondering who will be eating these in a distant country,” the 64-year-old said of his light-pink peaches on Oct. 4.

About 200 kilograms of the large peaches he grew at his orchard in Date reached store shelves in Bangkok in mid-October.

Over three decades of serious efforts and promotion, Fukushima Prefecture became a “kingdom” of fruit farming. But all that changed after March 11, 2011, when the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami caused the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Farmers and officials in the prefecture are now hoping that sales in Southeast Asia will help soften the impact of embargoes in other export markets.

“We also hope Fukushima fruits can win a high reputation in Southeast Asia to offset the negative public image back in Japan,” said Yasunobu Wadayama, a deputy sales promotion chief in the prefectural government.

The shipment volume of Fukushima fruit has actually been steady since the Fukushima disaster, but health concerns have slashed their prices in half. The prices of Fukushima peaches have only recovered to about 80 percent of pre-disaster levels.

The Tokyo and Kansai metropolitan areas accounted for the bulk of shipment destinations before the meltdowns at the Fukushima plant.

Annual export volumes have hovered around 50 tons over the last decade or so, and rose to 70 tons in 2009. But Taiwan and Hong Kong, which together imported more than 90 percent of that volume, have banned all imports of Fukushima farm products since the nuclear crisis began.

According to the prefectural government and other sources, exports of peaches, apples and other fruit grown in Fukushima Prefecture began in earnest about 30 years ago in hopes of revitalizing the local economy. The prefectural government covered part of the publicity expenses.

Orchard crop volumes in Fukushima Prefecture in 2011 ranked second among all 47 prefectures of Japan for peaches, fourth for “nashi” pears, fifth for apples and 12th for grapes. These four fruit items had a combined shipment of 72,000 tons in 2011.

Thailand, which is close enough to receive fresh Fukushima peaches, has not shown the radiation fears that are evident in other areas.

In August last year, Fukushima Prefecture and local farming groups invited about 20 Thai retailers to a prefectural institution that screens products for possible radioactive contamination. The retailers were told that only peaches found free of radioactive substances were being shipped.

The Thais were also taken to a peach orchard, where they could sample the fruit.

The first serious exports of Fukushima peaches and apples to Thailand took place the following autumn. Two tons of fruit were sold out at four Bangkok department stores, mostly to wealthy customers who could afford paying about 800 yen ($8) for a peach and 300 yen for an apple.

“The buyers likely placed trust in Japan’s screening system and made rational decisions,” said Koichi Okamoto, a first secretary for the Japanese Embassy in Thailand who attended the sales event.

Exports of Fukushima fruit to Malaysia also began this year.

A combined 2.5 tons of peaches, along with 250 kg of pears and 80 kg of grapes for trial marketing, were sent to Thailand and Malaysia in August and September. They were all sold out at department stores in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

“Despite heavy news coverage in Thailand of radioactive water leaks at the Fukushima nuclear plant, last year’s purchasers returned to praise the taste of our products and buy them in boxes,” said Yusuke Kimura, a sales promotion official for the prefectural government who attended a sales event in Bangkok this autumn.

There are plans to increase exports of Fukushima fruits next year. But the small circulation still means that most of the earnings will go into transportation and other expenses.

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