The mad post-tsunami food panic

You could eat Japan's so-called ‘radioactive spinach’ for a whole year and it still wouldn’t cause you much harm.

Bill Durodié

Topics Science & Tech

It would require an iron will to stand in the face of today’s febrile culture and oppose the wave of countries rapidly withdrawing Japanese foodstuffs from their shelves ‘in line with the precautionary approach’, as a Singapore government spokesperson put it.

Having alerted the world to elevated levels of radiation in food items such as spinach and milk, as well as doses twice the recommended limit for babies in drinking water in Tokyo, the Japanese government really has no one other than itself to blame. After coping admirably in managing the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and the tsunami, as well as demonstrating the resolve to address the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, it seems that it is at the level of communication that the authorities may yet score an own-goal.

The Japanese cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano – until now the image of cool with his detached demeanour and worker’s overalls at press conferences – has asked international importers to take a ‘logical stance’ over the food situation. They will. Unfortunately, it is not the logic he may have had in mind. ‘Even if these foods are temporarily eaten, there is no health hazard’, he advised. Others have indicated that one would have to drink a lot of the water before being harmed. Drinking the water in Tokyo for a year might expose you to an additional 0.8 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation. But then living in some of the places on earth where the natural background radiation is above the norm could easily expose you to 10 times as much.

Needless to say, people continue to live in such areas – and have babies. In fact, there is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that – if anything – their longevities may be enhanced through such exposure. After all, biological life emerged into an environment that had far more radiation, from the ground and from space, than it does today.

Eating the spinach non-stop for a year (perish the thought) would give you a radiation dose equivalent to about one CT scan. Drinking the milk endlessly would be even less of a problem. In fact, you would be sick of eating and drinking these products long before any of them could make you sick from radiation poisoning or cancer.

So where did it all go wrong for Edano? Where did the army of over-zealous officials wanting to ban things on a precautionary basis come from? Should we blame the US – we often do – for starting the cascade? Or was it the media who irresponsibly amplified concerns?

In fact, if we truly hope to understand the confusions now emerging over the situation regarding food from Japan, there is little point in looking there, or even trying to understand nuclear accidents and radiation, or the role of today’s nervous officials and the media.

Rather, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the world has steadily been reorganised along the principle that it is better to be safe than sorry. That sounds eminently sensible. But is it true? Is there not a point where safety comes at a cost to other areas of life? For instance, if we were to put all our resources into combating terrorism, there would be none left to deal with disease.

Risk management is always about such trade-offs. But the mantra that we should be as safe as possible and always take precautionary measures whenever possible has become good coin among bureaucratic elites the world over. This provided governments with a new role once the old Soviet enemy had imploded. Noting too that the end of the old-style confrontational politics had also left people rather more isolated and insecure, politicians refashioned themselves as the people’s protectors of last resort.

This has come at a tremendous cost to society – leaders driven more by events than by principles, and populations that are used to having their prejudices pandered to rather than challenged. The rot, of course, started at the top. Hence witness a large number of foreign nationals in Japan, many of whom were caught up in these tumultuous events, and who wanted to stay behind to help their friends and loved ones. They even wanted to help complete strangers – but of course we now know, because we have been brought up to believe so, that strangers are a danger anyway.

So, rather than pursuing their humane instincts, according to their own assessment of what the real risks were, many such individuals were advised, by their own national governments, to get out. Get out of the region. Get out of Tokyo. Get out of Japan.

In the past, people who ran away from people in need, particularly when these were people they knew, might have been accused of being cowards. Today, we call that ‘precautionary measures’.

Welcome to the brave new world of risk-obsessed politics. Far from building character and making populations more resilient, as the leaders of some of these countries constantly profess themselves to be doing, what we find is a highly confused culture that encourages a febrile response, both on the ground, and many thousands of miles away.

It is this that might prove to be the greatest problem for the wider Japanese population for quite some time to come.

Bill Durodié is senior fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Visit his website here.

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Topics Science & Tech


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