Genome-edited foods may soon be on tables

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - Foods created with genome-editing technologies could be on the dinner table as early as this summer. 

A panel of experts at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry on Monday decided to introduce a system under which it will no longer be required for universities and businesses, among others, to undertake safety tests for foods produced through selective breeding that results from broadly applied genome-editing technologies. They will instead be required to notify the relevant ministries on a voluntary basis.

 As such genome-edited foods are yet to become widespread, it is essential to win consumers’ understanding.

 “As the state’s rules have finally been put in order, it has become easier [for us] to draw up a concrete plan for development,” said Prof. Toshiya Muranaka at Osaka University, welcoming the ministry’s latest policy on Monday.

 Muranaka is developing potatoes without a toxic component via a genome-editing technique.

 Genome-editing techniques have the potential to completely change the fields of medicine, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and energy. In particular, expectations run high that it will lead to a stable food supply and an improvement in food quality, and relevant research is becoming brisk across the world.

 Within Japan, besides the gene-edited potatoes being developed by Muranaka, development of a large red sea bream and other foods are underway.

 A venture company set up by the University of Tsukuba plans to put on the market within this year genome-edited tomatoes that have an abundance of a component that can lower blood pressure. In the United States, selective breeding of soybeans, for instance, is making progress.

 The main techniques to be used in the selective breeding of these foods are those that destroy certain gene functions via genome-editing technologies.

 Similar developments take place in the natural world through mutations and also through conventional selective breeding that relies on chance. Given this, the expert panel decided on Monday not to make genome-edited foods subject to regulations under the Food Sanitation Law.

 Based on a similar consideration that there will be no major impact on the ecosystem, the Environment Ministry also decided in January to exempt genome-edited foods from legal regulations.

 Instead of having them undergo legal screenings, both the health and environment ministries plan to have the developers of such genome-edited foods voluntarily submit information as to which genes have been altered, with the ministries making this information public.

 “If there is a problem with a product produced by an operator that has not filed a notice with the ministry, we will also make the information [about the problem] public, including that fact [that a notice was not filed]. Should such a thing happen, the punishment incurred from the public will be greater,” said an official of the health ministry.

 Saying this, the official communicated that the ministry can ensure the new rule’s effectiveness, even if the notice is to be filed on a voluntary basis.

 In the case of genetically modified (GM) foods, in which genes from different organisms are added, business operators developing such foods are required to examine their safety, namely whether they will give rise to an allergic reaction in the human body. It is also said safety examinations and the like undertaken before such products can be put on the market cost about ¥4 billion.

 If no safety examinations are required, even small- and medium-sized firms will be able to venture into the development of genome-edited foods. Such reasoning also lines up with the intentions of the central government, which advocates the promotion of the bioindustry. The health ministry plans to iron out the details of the relevant rules by this summer, while the Consumer Affairs Agency, for its part, will consider rules for labels on food products.

Winning understanding

 However, there is also opposition to the idea of not imposing any safety examinations. The Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Cooperative Union, based in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, calls for the introduction of safety screenings on the grounds that there is a possibility of unexpected mutations occurring.

 As opposition to GM foods runs strong in Japan, their commercial cultivation has not made progress. As long as only the benefits for producers were emphasized, such as relative ease of cultivation, consumers did not see much merit to them, so GM foods were unable to gain popularity. In light of this, researchers of genome-editing technologies are emphasizing how consumers regard the products by promoting such points as gene-edited foods being good for health.

 Yet it is difficult to win the understanding of consumers.

 Naoyuki Mikami, an associate professor at Hokkaido University who specializes in the study of science, technology and society, collected the opinions of 24 men and women after having them thoroughly learn about genome-editing technology.

 All but one of them said, “The safety has not been sufficiently confirmed,” and only seven said, “It [the technology] will contribute to people’s health.”

 Mikami said, “Even though the central government emphasizes the safety [of the technology], as long as consumers’ understanding of it does not deepen, the technology will not become popular. In order to find out what sort of information would give consumers a sense of assurance, the government needs to respond flexibly such as by reviewing relevant rules while they are being applied.”