Genetically modified food products using a specific kind of technology may hit store shelves in Japan within this year amid lingering consumer concerns, after a notification system for such food began this month.
The gene-editing technology allows a specific gene in the DNA to be precisely clipped out to stop its functions, and sometimes a gene from a different organism is inserted.
The technology dramatically speeds up improvements to plants and animals, something that has conventionally been conducted through breeding.
Critics are concerned because some of the gene-edited food products do not need to be screened for safety. Notifications to the state and indication on product labels for such products are also voluntary.
So far, tomatoes far richer in nutritional content and higher-yielding rice crops have been developed through the technology.
Masato Kinoshita, assistant professor at Kyoto University, has developed a breed of red sea bream with thicker flesh through gene editing.
“Costs will drop if red sea bream has more flesh without increasing feed,” Kinoshita said. “Consumers will benefit through price drops.”
The health ministry says it is mandatory to put genetically modified food through safety screenings under the Food Sanitation Law.
But food using the technique only to clip out genes is treated as an exception under the notification system.
Developers are asked to notify the government of such food products, but it is not obligatory.
This specific type of gene editing “is thought to pose the same degree of risk as conventional breeding,” a ministry official said.
Meanwhile, food in which any gene was introduced must go through safety screenings.
The Consumer Affairs Agency has decided not to make it compulsory to indicate on product labels genetically modified food using the technique to clip out genes.
The agency reached the conclusion because it is impossible to identify products using the technique scientifically.
In addition, the agency finds it difficult to reach foreign companies that produce or sell products using the technique. However, the agency is asking companies to voluntarily indicate any use of such techniques on product labels, in response to requests from consumers.
Hiroko Yoshimori, co-leader of civic group Non GM Seed Forum, is critical of government treatment of gene-edited food.
“Unexpected things may happen. A wrong gene may be cut off mistakenly,” Yoshimori said. “I feel the system was launched hastily without enough consideration.”
“Unintended crossing may occur. Safety screenings and indication on food labels should be made mandatory,” Yoshimori added.