GENTECH archive


Japanese Choke on American Biofood

                                       Sunday, March 14, 1999 

            SUNDAY REPORT 
            Japanese Choke on American Biofood 
              Genetically altered produce reaps opposition. But moves
            to label it threaten $11 billion in U.S. sales. 
            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
                       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
                       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
                       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

                       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
                       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
                       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
                       "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
                       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 fears. 

                       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
                       "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
                       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
                       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
                       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
                       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