Japan has been conducting studies on GM food crops including soybeans and rapeseed since 2006, and the latest 2020/2021 report has concluded that the cultivation of these GM crops poses no risk to local biodiversity.
“We have been studying GM crop cultivation sites and collecting samples of these crops to compare with non-GM crops of the same species growing within five kilometres of the sites [in order to] investigate whether any crossing of genetic material took place,” the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) said via a formal statement.
“Our most recent study as of 2020/2021 found that there was no evidence of genetically-modified genes spreading over into potentially crossable related species e.g. from GM soybean into wild soybean.
“In fact, across both 2020 and 2021 there was no crossing observed between GM rapeseed and non-GM native rapeseed; or between GM soybeans and non-GM wild soybeans.
“There was one instance in 2020 where there was suspicion of different GM soybeans crossing with each other, but this possibility has since been ruled out and is now considered extremely low. No such crossing was observed in 2021.”
The conclusion based on this report is that locally grown non-GM crops are unlikely to be affected by GM crops, a possibility that has long existed as a major concern and argument for consumer groups opposing the government’s interest in introducing GM foods more prominently into the local food supply.
As such, Japan is taking its progress in this area extremely slowly and carefully, and even a decade and a half of positive study data has not yet prompted it to open its doors more invitingly to GM foods, instead continuing to commit to further studies and even thorough re-evaluation of these results.
“MAFF will review the survey methods [and] results obtained so far in FY2022, and any data obtained beyond this in order to verify the presence or absence of the impact of GM rapeseed and GM soybeans on biodiversity,” said the ministry.
“We will continue to conduct this survey to further enhance our scientific knowledge on the impact of GM crops on Japan's biodiversity.”
Earlier this year, Japan also announced tighter labelling regulations for foods made from GM ingredients or containing any GM components, mandating nine major agricultural products for compulsory GM labelling: Soybeans, corn, potatoes, rapeseed, cottonseed, alfalfa, sugar beet, papaya and mustard greens.
These updated regulations were mandated for 33 processed food categories in the country, covering just about every possible type of food product that could be made from the nine crops from tofu to soy sauce to chips.
The tighter regulations do however bode good things for GM foods in Japan – the government wouldn’t be implementing new regulations for the sector if it was not considering bringing in or growing it.
This also appears to be support by the growing litany of evidence MAFF is providing regarding GM food safety as well as the abundant documents, pictorials and other marketing tools the government has created to improve the image of GM foods to consumers.
Still on the other side of the fence
Despite Japan’s best efforts though, local consumers do still appear hesitant to accept GM foods as a safe food source – according to a 2016 Nara Medical University study, the government’s efforts do appear to be paying off in terms of consumers understanding and accepting GM technology, but not so much when it applies to food.
“Although no health hazards are known, respondents in Japan strongly recognize GM food as a health risk,” said the study authors.
“In fact, Japanese respondents showed the strongest fear of food hazards compared to other nations (France, UK, US) in this study.
“The belief that GM foods poses health hazards is likely to be associated with their perception of these, which in turn appears to be related to cultural predispositions toward uncertainty avoidance.
“[It must also be kept] in mind that Japanese cultural traits place a high importance on social balance and harmony, which may demotivate consumers from express their true opinion, and this cultural predisposition should be carefully considered and measured [when devising strategies to increase consumer acceptance] of GM foods.”