Japan GM food safety update: Transgenic soy, rapeseed have no impact on biodiversity even after 15 years – government study

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

The Japanese government has found no sign of GM soybean and rapeseed crops having any impact on surrounding biodiversity over 15 years of natural growth. ©Getty Images
The Japanese government has found no sign of GM soybean and rapeseed crops having any impact on surrounding biodiversity over 15 years of natural growth. ©Getty Images

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The Japanese government has found no sign of genetically modified (GM) soybean and rapeseed crops having any impact on surrounding biodiversity over 15 years of natural growth, further strengthening its argument for further GM-related approvals in the country.

According to the report by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), till date no sign of any impacts to the biodiversity surrounding areas where GM rapeseed or soybeans has been found, despite research having been ongoing for some 15 years.

“Since 2006, we have been investigating the growth of transgenic rapeseed and soybeans, and the presence or absence of crosses with their related species in the area around [where they grow],”​ said MAFF in a formal statement.

“In the latest survey conducted in 2020, the results do not show [a significant] situation where the recombinant genes [from either GM rapeseed or soybean plants] have spread to any closely related species near them, or led to an expansion of the growth range of the GM plants.

“Therefore, it is considered that GM rapeseed and soybeans are not likely to affect biodiversity.”

For soybeans, the MAFF research team had conducted their research on locations containing both GM soybeans and wild soybeans, considered ‘closely related species that can be crossed with GM soybeans’​. The survey covered an approximately 5km radius from the GM soybean sites, and the leaves of the plants were used for analysis.

“Analysis was conducted for the herbicide resistance genes and pest resistance genes known to be present in the GM soybeans - No crosses between GM and wild soybeans, or between GM soybeans with different resistances were observed,” ​said MAFF.

“For rapeseed, we did observe some 19% of cases in this survey where GM rapeseed spread the recombinant gene to other GM species with different genes or closely related non-GM species, [but] based on crossover rate assessment [this is not considered to have significant biodiversity impact].”

According to MAFF, the biodiversity impact here was assessed based on the genetic crossover rate between GM and non-GM rapeseed species – the normal crossover rate for non-GM species is between 5% to 30%, so the 19% rate was considered to be ‘within range’​.

“Furthermore, all previous surveys [since 2006 to 2018] have not shown any situation where the recombinant gene spread in rapeseed. [However], MAFF will continue studies to verify the impacts of GM crops on biodiversity and the possible presence of any hybrids and further pursue scientific understanding of the impacts of [GM crops] in Japan.”

The biodiversity impact argument is commonly used by anti-GM activists​ to protest GM crop cultivation for years, even as scientists argue that these concerns are not scientifically valid.

Government stance on GM

MAFF’s adamant stance that GM rapeseed and soybean show no impact on biodiversity comes as no surprise as the Japanese government has been gradually pushing for greater GM acceptance in the country, despite consumer group resistance.

Japan is one of the largest importers of GM foods in the world, with approvals granted for over 200 types of GM foods or food additives. In 2019, an expert panel under the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) also announced that some types of GM foods (specifically those using gene-editing technology to make) would be allowed to go on sale in Japan.

““There is little difference between traditional breeding methods and gene editing in terms of safety,” ​the expert panel’s chair Hirohito Sone told NHK​.

“[What] is needed to ease public concerns now are thorough explanations [of these new technologies].​”

Indeed, the Japanese government has put a great deal of effort into providing such explanations since then – a great deal of website space is dedicated to the explanation of GM foods and the relevant technologies on the MHLW website, including a variety of brochures and point-by-point explanatory documentation.

Although there is no specific promotion or marketing of GM foods in these documents, the vast majority of examples provided are positive ones, e.g. how GM potatoes can be cultivated to have remove toxins, or GM tomatoes can have increased GABA content.

Not all GM foods in Japan are subject to mandatory labelling – products where the genetically modified DNA or proteins derived from these are not detectable after processing such as oil are only subject to voluntary labelling. This also applies to gene-edited foods as it is currently not possible to identify these via scientific methods.

Consumer concerns

Despite the government’s enthusiasm and endorsement, the Japanese public remains reluctant to accept GM foods as a mainstay.

According to research conducted by the Pew Research Centre last year, some 32% of Japanese consumers believe that GM foods are generally unsafe to eat, and despite MHLW’s education efforts, 51% of the public maintains that they still ‘don’t know enough to say’​, indicating continued distrust despite the large amount of available information.

“40% of women and 25% of men surveyed felt that it is generally unsafe to eat GM foods,”​ said the researchers.

In addition, consumer groups also maintain that the recent approvals of gene edited foods are too hasty​’ and could lead to unintended and undesirable consequences.

“Unexpected things may happen. A wrong gene may be cut off mistakenly [or] unintended crossing may occur,”​ civic group Co-Leader Hiroko Yoshimori told Japan Times​.

“I feel the system was launched hastily without enough consideration. [Safety] screenings and indication on food labels should be made mandatory.”

Despite all of this, Japan is still pressing on, with plans to approve the first gene-edited product – a GABA-rich GM tomato to prevent high blood pressure developed by a local start-up – with an MHLW expert panel having been established to analyse this.

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