Major Natural Disaster and Environmental Crisis in Japan Reinforces the Importance of Food Science & Technology (Online Exclusive) Kiyoko R. Kubomura | June 2011, Volume 65, No.6

Recent events in Japan have affected the availability and safety of the food supply. Food science and technology offer solutions for feeding people in disaster areas as well as a growing global population.

What if a fire, flood, earthquake, tsunami, or any other major disaster destroyed your lifetime of work, all your contacts’ database, and all of your business information? How would your company survive, given such a worst-case scenario? So much expertise can be lost in a second!

As the global population increases, there is a greater likelihood that more humans will experience the terror of these natural occurrences within their lifetime. How can we prepare for these types of disasters and how can we provide clean water and safe food for our survival?

As a resident of Tokyo, Japan, these hypothetical questions became all too real for me recently with the devastating earthquake and deadly tsunami and subsequent nuclear environmental crisis.

Looking outside my window during a recent spring rain shower, my thoughts turned to whether this rain is radioactive. I think about how much progress we have made since the Second World War and now we are facing another nuclear disaster.

Japanese Food Culture
In Japanese culture, the spring rain is called “good rain, welcome rain, and beneficial rain.” It is a time of hope for our farmers and horticulturists as they look forward to a bountiful crop of agricultural produce. I do not know if this rain is good or bad.

Botamochi is a springtime treat made with sweet rice and sweet red bean paste.
Botamochi is a springtime treat made with sweet rice and sweet red bean paste.

In celebration of Vernal Equinox Day, I usually visit my parents’ memorial with flowers and some food items. The food we take is called Botamochi, which is a springtime treat made with sweet rice and sweet red bean paste. The dish is made by soaking sweet rice for approximately six hours. The rice is then cooked, and a thick red bean paste is hand packed around preformed balls of rice. Botamochi means “to be like a flower”, and can also signify protection against misfortune. It comes from the red color of the bean.

I was born after the Second World War and my mother instilled in me the importance of food. Everyone was very poor and hunger was a big concern during and after the war.

At present we appear to be a well-fed nation but this recent disaster has changed our thinking about everyday things like food and water that we take for granted. During the height of the crisis, I was not able to drive my car to collect gasoline. When I visited the supermarket, I was unable to purchase daily necessities due to panic buying by consumers. We have experienced a small amount of damage in Tokyo from the earthquake itself but the problem for us is the nuclear radioactivity that has contaminated our water and food.

As a food scientist, housewife, and consumer, the only option for me for purchasing goods was to visit a local wholesale market in Tokyo. Restaurants were also not able to purchase supplies to keep their businesses going and they have had a decrease in business as a result.

Fortunately, I was at home preparing for a business trip when the earthquake struck. When I returned to my office in downtown Tokyo, it was such a mess. Everything had fallen off shelves and boxes had emptied all over the floor. I am sure had I been at work I would have suffered some injury.

A typical spring dish of bamboo shoots and wakame (edible seaweed).
A typical spring dish of bamboo shoots and wakame (edible seaweed).

Recently I had dinner, a typical spring dish, at home with my husband. I wish to keep our habits around seasonal meals as they are generally a time for thinking about healthy foods and our food culture. I cooked bamboo shoots and wakame (edible seaweed); the topping was Sichuan pepper. It is really healthy with plenty of dietary fiber. But I was so sad to see the wakame packaging, which was sent to me by my friend’s food company. It comes every spring as a gift and had arrived at home the day before the earthquake. When I saw the packaging of wakame, I noticed it had come from the area of the tsunami (Ofunato seaside). I wiped away my tears, as I recalled how many people had been killed and are still missing and injured ... most of them worked at this factory and would surely have died. It is so very sad.

Wakame fronds are green and have a subtle sweet flavor and slippery texture. The leaf is cut into small pieces, which expand during cooking. Wakame is distributed either dried or salted, and used in miso soup, tofu salad, and prepared foods. Wakame is a rich source of eicosapentaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. It doesn’t have many calories and has good levels of calcium, iodine, thiamine, and niacin.

When I joined WHO and their education program as a lecturer, I always made mention of the traditional diet of Japan, and how to lessen malnutrition in undeveloped countries.

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