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3-Food: Japanese public still chewing over GM food issues

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                                  PART I
-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  How safe is our food? / Public still chewing over GM food issues
SOURCE: Daily Yomiuri, Japan, by Ikuko Kitagawa and Mikiko Miyakawa
DATE:   Jun 29, 2003

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How safe is our food? / Public still chewing over GM food issues

This is the third installment in a series of stories on the safety of our

In a glasshouse nestled among some of the many rice fields in Tsukuba,
Ibaraki Prefecture, a state research institute is cultivating a strain of
rice unlike any other.

At a glance, the seedlings look no different from those in the fields
outside, from which they are safely separated. The scientists in charge
of the project, however, have great expectations of their test crop,
which has been genetically modified to inactivate the cellular response
triggered by allergens that causes hay fever.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry's National Institute of
Agrobiological Sciences has been growing on a test basis various types of
GM rice that the researchers say can cure allergies to house dust and
even lower cholesterol levels.

"I suffered from hay fever and came up with the idea of making rice that
builds resistance to hay fever a couple of years ago," the institute's
chief researcher, Fumio Takaiwa, said.

Takaiwa said tests in which a previous harvest of the GM rice was fed to
mice went well, and he and his colleagues will test the rice on human
health by eating the harvest themselves.

If such rice can be grown, those who eat it would not have to buy
medicines for hay fever and cholesterol problems.

Although GM rice may prove beneficial, Takaiwa warns that such foods
should be strictly controlled.

"Some people who don't need or want to eat such modified foods may
consume them by accident," Takaiwa said.

Genetic modification involves extracting a gene from an organism and
implanting it into a plant or other organism to add useful characteristics.

Japan began importing GM foods, mainly from the United States and Canada,
in 1996, but consumers' concerns over such products remain unabated.

The 2000 discovery that U.S. corn shipped to Japan was contaminated with
StarLink, a GM variety of corn used in animal feed but not yet approved
for human consumption even in the United States, raised public concern. A
series of recent food-related scandals, including the beef-mislabeling
fiasco and the mad cow disease scare, only served to further fuel
consumer distrust of food that has been interfered with.

Public concerns about GM foods focus on their potential threat to human
health and the ecosystem, including accidental contamination of other
crops. However, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry says no
such cases have been reported in the country.

According to a survey conducted in December by the Society for Techno-
innovation of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 79 percent of 1,090
consumers polled said they were concerned either slightly or very much
about eating GM foods. On the other hand, 71 percent answered that they
thought the genetic recombination technique was useful for agriculture
and food products.

Starting in April 2001, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry obliged
businesses to conduct safety assessments and label GM foods. It has since
been illegal to import or sell GM foods or foods processed from such
ingredients unless they have been authorized as safe.

As of June 17, the ministry had declared as safe 47 varieties of six GM
crops--soybeans, corn, potatoes, cotton, rapeseed and sugar beet.

Currently, the law requires five agricultural products and 30 foods
processed from them to be labeled as genetically modified.

Japan imports most of these crops--95 percent of soybeans and all dent
corn is sourced from outside the country. The health ministry said it
randomly inspects imports of the six crops, but added that it is
impossible to inspect every single grain.


Farmers test-growing GM crops

Under such circumstances, a group of farmers already has started growing
GM crops on an experimental basis.

Katsutoshi Nagatomo, 59, who represents Bio Konwa-kai, a group of about
700 farmers nationwide, said, "Genetically modified foods have been
proved to be safe to eat because the government approved the safety of
such foods after conducting strict examinations."

In 1996, Nagatomo, from Miyazaki, and seven of his colleagues watched a
television documentary about herbicide-resistant soybeans called Roundup
Ready and started researching introducing the brand to Japan. The group
received seeds from the U.S. agricultural provider Monsanto Co. and test-
grew them in 2001 and 2002. All the crops were disposed of before harvest.

"There are always obstacles to introducing something new, and it's
natural for people to worry about it, but I want consumers to understand
that biotechnology has become necessary for the future of Japan, which
has the lowest food self-sufficiency rate among developed countries,"
Nagatomo said.

Yet, Keisuke Amagasa, a member of Citizens' Biotechnology Information
Center, expressed strong doubts. The group sent a letter to the health
ministry protesting Nagatomo's group's experimental cultivation.

"Imports of GM foods into the country accelerated the movement among
farmers and consumers to grow conventional crops," he said.

According to a survey conducted by a consumers group called No GMO
Campaign, the ratio of domestic soybeans produced in the country
increased from 2 percent between June 1995 and June 1996 to 5.2 percent
in 2002 apparently because people were alarmed by the influx of GM foods.

The group started a campaign that involved consumers asking farmers to
grow conventional soybeans in return for additional payment.


Information the key

The dispute over the safety of GM foods remains unresolved as nobody can
clearly define whether such foods are safe, according to experts.

"It's not that difficult to assess the risks inherent in taking pills,
for example. We can determine the level of intake that would cause
problems. However, it's very difficult to assess the level of safety (of
GM foods)," said Prof. Tatsuhito Fujimura of Tsukuba University, who is
also a director of the university's Gene Experiment Center. The
university is researching gene recombination techniques in several fields
from food to environment.

While consumer groups expressed strong concerns about possible risks to
human health and the ecosystem caused by GM foods, some scientists
support biotechnology.

Tadashi Watanabe, professor of applied chemistry at Tokyo University's
Institute of Industrial Science, is positive about GM technology.

Watanabe believes the technology is particularly helpful in reducing
farmers' use of agricultural chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides.

"I believe the biggest advantage of GM technology is its application to
make plants resistant to insect pests, which helps significantly reduce
the use of agricultural chemicals," Watanabe said. "Consequently, the
technology helps boost farming productivity."

Watanabe believes that GM technology is much safer and more accurate than
classical crop-breeding methods, because it can pinpoint certain genes, a
technique that is impossible in conventional methods.

Watanabe said consumers should not be overly concerned about the possible
dangers of GM products. He says a lack of adequate information has
resulted in misunderstanding among the public. Regarding consumer
concerns over the toxicity of GM food, he also said it is natural even
for conventional farming products to contain contaminants and other
undesirable components.

Tsukuba University's Fujimura said: "We have a responsibility as
scientists to provide technology to the public, and consumers have a
choice to make."

He added that as the safety of GM foods remains unclear, scientists
should allow 10 years to study possible risks involved in eating them.

The next installment will look into the safety of water.

                                  PART II
-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  In the realm of the superbean
SOURCE: The Japan Times, by Setsuko Kamiya
DATE:   June 22, 2003

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In the realm of the superbean


However, there are consumer concerns over the import of soybeans from
genetically modified plants. Whereas the Ministry of Agriculture,
Forestry and Fisheries states that those beans grown in Japan are all
non-GM, trade statistics show that out of some 5.03 million tons of
soybeans imported in fiscal 2002, only 740,000 tons were known to be non-
GM. The remaining 4.29 million tons of imported beans were used mostly to
make soy oil -- and what proportion of that total was GM is not included
in official data, according to the ministry.

Since 2001, soy-product manufacturers have been required by the Japanese
Agricultural Standard to state whether they use GM soybeans or not.
Japan's tofu and natto manufacturers say they are committed to using
imported non-GM beans. However, when soy oil and soy sauce are made using
GM beans, manufacturers are not obliged to state that fact, as the
genetically modified DNA is not detected in the end product.

In a recent move, however, the leading soy sauce manufacturer Kikkoman
Corp. has begun using only non-GM soybeans in its products (which command
27 percent of the domestic market). "We have always used soybeans whose
safety was assured," said spokesman Masahiko Shinohara. "We wanted our
customers to enjoy our soy sauce without any worries."

Although the Japanese diet has relied heavily on soybeans for so long,
there is nothing static in the evolving story of this little bean that's
held by many in near-magical regard.


European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
Kleine Wiese 6
D - 38116 Braunschweig

phone:  +49-531-5168746
fax:    +49-531-5168747
mobile: +49-162-1054755
email:  genetnl(at)