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Monday, June 19, 2000

OUR PLANET EARTH

Sure, Japanese rice is expensive -- you're paying for all the chemicals


Don't expect the government to look out for your best interests when it comes to chemicals.

The Japan Times confirmed June 6 that in February the Health and Welfare Ministry found high levels of an endocrine-disrupting chemical, DEHP, leaching from plastic into convenience store foods. The ministry's response? Cover up the findings and ask stores to do something about it, hush hush.

Whose side is the government on, anyway? Despite politicians' promises of more transparency and greater public access to information, it's clear the government still sees the business community as its No. 1 constituency.

Japan's rice farmers are coddled too. As long as they play along with a system that overcharges them for agricultural chemicals, they benefit from rice prices that are inordinately high.

Unfortunately, the chemicals are not just overpriced. They are also essential. Japan's most popular rice varieties are frail and need to be continually doused with chemicals to keep them healthy.

Sure, consumers are getting perfect rice -- puffy, white and identically sized -- when they buy top varieties, such as Koshihikari, Hitomebore, Akita Komachi and Kirara. What people don't realize, though, is that not only the rice, but also the soil, groundwater and rivers are getting saturated with herbicides, fungicides and pesticides.

For years, Japanese consumers have been warned that chemicals on imported foods pose the greatest danger, preharvest chemicals and postharvest chemicals sprayed on apples, oranges, other fruits and vegetables. We have been assured that as long as we eat domestically raised produce, the quantity and quality of chemicals is within the bounds of safety.

In fact, though, chemicals, and lots of them, are essential for dealing with insects and disease in Japan. Rice farmers have been given no incentives to breed hardier varieties of rice that require less chemicals, so though Japan is smaller than California and only 12 percent of the nation is cultivated, it is one of the world's largest markets for agrichemicals.

Japan's annual market for agricultural pesticides, herbicides and fungicides is close to $4 billion, according to one market observer, almost half used on rice. In Japan, farmers use about 197,000 tons of these chemicals per year (excluding fertilizer) -- about 100 kg of chemicals per hectare of rice, or about 19 kg per ton of rice harvested.

The process begins the year before, when rice is harvested and some is put aside for use the next year. This seed rice is sprayed to protect it from fungus that may set in during winter storage. The following spring, seedling producers and farmers who germinate their own seedlings coat the seeds a second time to protect them during the germination stage. Then, throughout the season, and particularly in the final month before harvest, rice plants are sprayed, and sprayed again.

Japan Agriculture Cooperative (JA), Japan's high profile "advocate and friend" of farmers, is both the main supplier of chemicals to farmers and their main marketing agent for rice. In this role, JA just happens to make a handsome profit off the farmers, with margins on some agrichemicals reaching well over 50 percent.

Nevertheless, the costly chemicals are offset by high prices charged for rice. In short, farmers douse plants with costly chemicals to protect their investment; chemical companies and JA rake in profits; and consumers pay top dollar for puffy white rice.

Farmers concerned enough to want to change are caught in a bind. If they switch to organic farming or heartier varieties, they may lose yield. They also risk being abandoned by JA if they try to extricate themselves from JA's "pay and spray" system. Farmers fear they won't find a market for sustainably grown crops that may be healthier but less appealing to puffy-rice consumers.

The problem is, consumers don't know any better, and the government certainly isn't in any hurry to tell them.

Worried enough about chemicals in food to do something about it? One option is Organic Planet, a new source for organic and sustainably grown foods. Organic Planet offers a free mail-order catalog of organic grains, flours, dried fruits, chocolate and spices, as well as baking utensils. They also ship seasonal fruits and other fresh products from organic and sustainable sources. This month's fruit is cherries. The catalog is in Japanese, but the staff can help you in Japanese or English. For more information, call (03) 3484-0225.

You may be familiar with Sumiko Enbutsu's column, Flower Walks, in The Japan Times, but Enbutsu knows a lot more about Tokyo than just gardens. She has spent years exploring its old neighborhoods, parks and waterways, and has authored several guidebooks on picturesque corners of Tokyo.

The most recent guide, written with Mimi LeBourgeois, is a delightful volume called "Water Walks," that introduces walks to, from and along historic water sources still found in the suburbs of western Tokyo. It contains detailed illustrations from the 1830s, easy-to-read maps and brief notes on historical and cultural points of interest along 14 rivers, streams and canals in Tokyo. The book also introduces numerous fine restaurants along the walks, reason enough to get a copy.

"Water Walks" (900 yen) is available by fax, (03) 5707-7697, or e-mail, mimileb@gol.com; at Blue and White in Azabu Juban, (03) 3451-0537 and at Good Day Books near Ebisu Station (03) 5421-0957.

And finally, a fond, though premature, farewell to Jean Pearce, who will soon be leaving The Japan Times after 36 years. Jean has been a steadfast supporter of this column, a source of encouragement, information and stories. She has introduced me to numerous sources and issues, many of which led to columns.

Jean always asks me how I stay optimistic despite all the environmental bad news. My answer is usually something glib, like, "Without problems I'd be out of a job." But Jean, I suspect, has always known the answer. She too is a staunch optimist: a woman dedicated to helping others and seeking out and sharing the best Japan and humanity have to offer. I will miss her column greatly; even more so, I will miss her sources, her fighting spirit and her generosity and compassion.

Just remember, Jean, retirement is reversible. We'll remain optimistic.

Stephen Hesse welcomes questions and comments at steve@ tamacc.chuo-u.ac.jp


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