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3-Food: Open struggle about GE food in Japan

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Japanese Choke on American Biofood
Genetically altered produce reaps opposition. But moves to label it 
threaten $11 billion in U.S. sales.
March 14, 1999
By SONNI EFRON, LA Times Staff Writer

TOKYO--The video whirs, and an American food exporter's nightmare rolls 
across the screen. A potato bug is shown munching on the deep green leaf 
of a potato plant--genetically engineered in the United States, the 
narrator says, to produce a toxin that kills Colorado potato bug larvae. 
The bug falls off the leaf, flailing its legs in the air in what looks 
like insect agony. "They say this is safe, but I don't want to eat it. Do 
you?" asked the filmmaker, Junichi Kowaka, in an interview. Surveys show 
that most Japanese do not. In this land where food is considered most 
delicious when eaten raw or as close to its natural state as possible, 
genetically manipulated food is seen as synthetic, unwholesome and 
definitely unappetizing.
To blunt a nascent consumer rebellion, the Japanese government has 
proposed labeling bioengineered food to give consumers the freedom to 
reject it. That in turn has alarmed the United States, which fears that 
the move could threaten its $11-billion annual sales--including about 
$1.3 billion from California--to Japan, the No. 1 market for U.S. 
agricultural exports.
Japan is not the only nation gagging at the idea of genetically altered 
fare. A truly global food fight is underway. The outcome of the 
regulatory, marketing and public perception battle that has been joined 
in Japan could have far-reaching effects on what U.S. farmers plant next 
year, on the skyrocketing U.S.-Japan trade imbalance and on the struggle 
between biofood promoters and foes for the hearts and palates of 
consumers around the world.
At issue in the emotional political debate that has erupted worldwide is 
how much to regulate and whether and how to label genetically modified 
organisms, known in biospeak as GMOs. These organisms are created when 
new genes--sometimes from another species--are introduced into a plant or 
animal to produce "desirable" traits, such as resistance to cold, pests, 
disease, spoilage or even a particular brand of herbicide. While U.S. 
farmers are quickly increasing the acreage planted with GMO seeds--to 40% 
or more of some crops--there is growing opposition in Europe, Japan and 
in some Third World countries on environmental, health, philosophical or 
religious grounds. The European Union has slapped restrictions on 
genetically modified plants and passed a law requiring GMO foods to be 
labeled. Well-organized environmental groups are crusading against what 
they have branded "Frankenstein food," fanning doubts about the products 
from Iceland to New Zealand. Anti-GMO protests have been staged in the 
Philippines, India and Hungary, according to activists, who are flooding 
the Internet with virulent attacks on biofoods. In London, where foes 
dumped bags of bioengineered soybeans onto Downing Street in protest last 
month, a poll by the Independent newspaper found that 68% of Britons were 
"worried" about eating GMO food. Only 27% said they were happy to eat it. 
Not all countries are hostile to foods altered by gene-splicing: GMO 
seeds reportedly have received a warm welcome in Russia, China and 
Argentina. And plenty of consumers have nothing against GMO foods so long 
as they know what is on the menu. A 1994 poll in Australia, for example, 
found that 61% were happy to try GMO foods, but 89% wanted them labeled. 
Australia and New Zealand are now trying to set up a common labeling 
system. New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley said earlier this month 
that consumers have a right to know whether their food contains GMOs.
Nevertheless, a heated battle broke out last month at a U.N.-sponsored 
conference in Cartagena, Colombia, where delegates from more than 130 
countries failed to agree on an international treaty to govern biosafety 
and trade in GMOs. The U.S. government warned that the restrictions being 
debated in Cartagena would paralyze international trade. According to 
media reports and conference participants, the United States and five 
other agricultural exporters that opposed labeling GMOs were bitterly 
accused by the other nations of torpedoing a global environmental pact to 
safeguard the interests of their farmers and biotech firms. The debate is 
by no means limited to food. Genetically modified material is being used 
in a wide range of products, from textiles to pharmaceuticals. Food Draws 
the Most Emotional Response Yet it is food that seems to generate the 
most emotional response.
Consumer advocates say that people must have the right to know--and thus 
reject--food that has been subjected to genetic "tampering." Biotech 
backers say that requiring such labels is tantamount to branding 
demonstrably safe food as inedible and would raise food prices for all 
Proponents of bioengineering also say "genetically enhanced" species are 
essential to generate the crop yields needed to nourish the world's 
exploding population and to reduce use of herbicides and pesticides. They 
say the foods have been exhaustively tested and demonstrated to be safe 
enough to pass muster with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the 
Environmental Protection Agency, as well as international regulators. 
Foes assert that long-term studies on the effects of eating GMO foods 
have been inadequate. They question the environmental risks of developing 
pest-resistant or chemical-resistant crops, and they fear that bionic 
organisms could crowd out native species. A subtext in many countries is 
suspicion of scientific "miracles," new technologies and imperfect 
regulators, and the perception that the U.S. biotech industry has been 
heavy-handed in trying to shove new foods down frightened consumers' 
throats, said Beth Burrows, president of the nonprofit Edmonds Institute 
in Edmonds, Wash., who attended the Cartagena conference. Europeans have 
been sensitized to food-safety issues by the outbreak of "mad cow" 
disease. In Japan, the credibility of the Ministry of Health and Welfare 
was severely damaged by the 1996 revelation that its bureaucrats had 
knowingly allowed the sale of HIV-tainted blood products--a scandal that 
broke the same year that the ministry approved the first of 22 GMO crops 
for human consumption here.
Availability of GMO foods in Japan has not led to acceptance. More than 
80% of those questioned in a 1997 government survey said they have 
"reservations" about such foods, and 92.5% favored mandatory labeling. 
Unease is beginning to translate into action. The city of Fujisawa, near 
Tokyo, has banned all GMO foodstuffs from its school lunches. A tofu 
maker has begun advertising its product as "recombinant-DNA-soybean 
free." And a number of powerful food-buying co-ops--which claim nearly 20 
million members, or about 1 in every 6 Japanese--are trying to screen out 
or label GMO foods. "It seems Americans only care about the quantity of 
their food, but Japanese are concerned about the quality," filmmaker 
Kowaka said. "Nobody wants to eat this stuff." Kowaka is a food-safety 
activist with the Japan Descendants Fund, a nonprofit group that has 
succeeded in provoking widespread concern among Japanese consumers about 
chemical-emitting plastics in food packaging and the use of post-harvest 
chemicals on food. Last year, a number of ramen makers changed their 
packaging after Kowaka's group reported that chemicals suspected of 
disrupting the human endocrine system leached from the plastic bowls when 
boiling water was poured over the dried noodles.
Kowaka's current video, titled "The Dangers of Recombinant-DNA Food," has 
sold about 1,000 copies at $130 each and is being shown at lectures and 
gatherings by consumer, environmental and religious groups, he said. The 
Japanese government is countering anti-GMO groups like Kowaka's with a 
campaign to convince a skeptical Japanese public that genetically altered 
foods are not only safe but desirable. In fact, despite its draft 
proposal for a GMO labeling law, the Japanese government has been 
actively promoting biotechnology as a vital technology for the coming 
century and is investing billions to try to turn Japan into a world-class 
competitor. It is even attempting to genetically engineer strains of rice 
that will be tastier and hardier than conventional varieties. The 
politics of genetically engineered food here have been complicated by the 
fact that all the GMO foods offered for sale so far have been imported. 
Japanese companies have not dared introduce gene-spliced foods of their 
own, and although farmers can legally plant GMO seeds, so far none has 
chosen to do so, said Kazuhiko Kawamura, who deals with the labeling 
issue at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Foreign food producers complain that Japan's powerful agricultural 
interests are trying to scare off consumers from GMO foods as part of a 
campaign to boost domestic agriculture.
"Over the last 30 years, there has been a concerted effort here in Japan 
to paint imported foods as being dangerous, as being less desirable," 
said Dennis Kitch, Japan director of the U.S. Grains Council. The effort 
has included everything from asserting to Japanese that their intestines 
are ill designed for digesting Western beef to convincing them that 
foreign produce is more chemical-laden than home-grown fare. Though 
false, U.S. officials and industry sources say, such claims have 
succeeded in instilling alimentary xenophobia. Kowaka's video is no 
exception. As the narrator warns that "we Japanese are being used as 
guinea pigs" for inadequately tested GMO foods, the camera shows 
unwitting children eating French fries--by suggestion, those made from 
genetically altered plants that kill potato bugs--at that archetypal 
American eatery, McDonald's. "They think all imported food is bad. That 
gets to be protectionist," said a U.S. government official who argues 
that GMO labeling should not be used to reinforce unfounded consumer 
U.S. Wants Japan to Accept Standards The United States has decided to 
require labels on genetically altered foods that are nutritionally 
different from traditional fare, that might contain allergens or that 
pose religious problems--such as a plant containing a pig gene--if and 
when any are introduced. Yet it doesn't require labeling of foods whose 
chemistry is essentially unchanged, solely on the basis of genetic 
origin. GMO foes in the United States have filed suit in an attempt to 
reverse that decision, but meanwhile, the U.S. government is lobbying 
Japan to accept its standards. "We're asking them not to have a labeling 
requirement that stokes the fear that these foods are bad without any 
basis in fact," said a U.S. official, adding that there is no evidence 
these foods are unsafe. Kowaka insisted, however, that a potato with an 
inborn insecticide is no ordinary spud, and should bear a warning label 
if it cannot be banned altogether. The Japanese committee studying 
labeling for the Agriculture Ministry has not yet ruled on the issue or 
decided what any label would say. The influential American Chamber of 
Commerce in Japan warns that GMO labeling "will create new nontariff 
trade barriers to imports." And while U.S. officials are trying to keep 
their criticisms scientific and low-key, they also have hinted to Japan 
that they may protest any mandatory labeling requirement to the World 
Trade Organization--as they have done over the European Union law.
Japanese consumer advocates are outraged by the American stance. Setsuko 
Yasuda, who runs the "No! GMO" campaign for the Consumers Union of Japan, 
said Americans should not meddle with Japan's right to regulate food 
safety and quality. If Americans truly believe in free trade and consumer 
choice, she said, they should label GMO food for what it is and let 
international customers make up their own minds. "But to try to hide 
information [about product origin] and force-feed people what they don't 
want to eat . . . is wrong," Yasuda said. "It is American arrogance, and 
it will provoke anti-American sentiment here. You will lose hearts around 
the world." For Japan and the United States, the stakes in the GMO battle 
are high. Japan absorbs nearly 20% of all U.S. food exports. With the 
American farm economy ravaged by the Asian economic crisis, the affluent 
Japanese market is one that farmers and food processors can ill afford to 
lose, grain lobbyist Kitch said. Japan's decision on labeling will be 
vital, and not just because of the size of its market; Tokyo's decisions 
tend to influence regulators in other Asian capitals. For Japanese, who 
must import more than half of the calories they consume each day, the 
increasing prevalence of GMOs in their food supply reinforces a feeling 
of food vulnerability. For example, 97% of Japan's soybeans are imported, 
mostly from the United States, and are turned into tofu, fermented miso, 
natto and other staples of the Japanese diet. However, 28% of last year's 
U.S. soybean crop came from GMO seeds, according to the American Soybean 
Assn. That percentage could double when farmers plant this spring's crop.
"We will have to find non-GMO sources," Yasuda said, adding that if 
American farmers want Japan's business, they will have to segregate 
crops. Trouble is, U.S. farmers often plant GMO and traditional crops in 
the same field, use the same machinery to harvest and transport them, and 
pour their grains into container ships that bring a river of food across 
the Pacific to Japan. However, DNA testing is so sensitive that it can 
detect one GMO part per trillion, Kitch said. That means a few stray 
kernels of GMO corn could "contaminate" bushels. To certify a product 
GMO-free would require costly testing and segregation at every stage in 
the processing and distribution chain, he said. These obstacles have so 
far prevented Europe from fully implementing its labeling law, industry 
sources said. As GMO crops or livestock come to dominate the U.S. market, 
genetically pristine products will become scarcer and more costly. No one 
knows how much more expensive--though some estimate a "GMO-free" label 
could add 30% or more to the price, and wonder whether Japanese consumers 
will be willing to pay it.
Japan's draft proposal on labeling does not specify how pure a non-GMO 
product would have to be. But without a threshold standard, a can of 
California tomato paste containing a smidgen of cornstarch that might 
have been made partly from GMO corn could wind up with a warning 
label--even if the tomatoes are all natural, Kitch said. Consumer 
advocate Yasuda and her allies say that imperfect labeling is better than 
none. And the fewer the "food miles" from farm to dinner table the 
better, they argue, even if home-grown fare is more costly. "Now, with 
globalization, we don't know where our food comes from, how it is 
produced, and what kind of contaminants it might contain," Yasuda said. 
"Does free trade automatically mean that the cheapest food is the best 
food? We don't think so."
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

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