Such foods have gained a sizable market presence since their introduction two decades ago. They account for about 17 million tons of the 31 million tons of grain imported by Japan each year, reports the Council for Biotechnology Information Japan, an industry organization including a local unit of agrochemical giant Monsanto. Much of this comes in the form of feed corn or material for such processed foods as cooking oil and soy sauce, making genetically modified crops an indispensable part of the nation's food supply.
Evading the bans
Such crops are not produced domestically, and imported foods are subject to safety screening prior to entry. Facilities like the Yokohama Quarantine Station's screening centre are the first line of defence against potentially hazardous products. Such centres tested more than 33,000 import samples for residual pesticides and other dangerous matter, in addition to genetic modification, in fiscal 2014.
Yet new technology and ongoing research abroad are pushing the limits of Japanese authorities' capacity to detect unauthorized genetically modified ingredients. China has carried out substantial research into such modified crops as rice, soybeans and corn since 2008. Modified cotton and papaya are approved for commercial production. And this year, Beijing designated the cautious expanded introduction of safe modified crops a key policy priority. Though China is now working through a massive grain surplus, research into technology for genetically modified crops aims to make production more efficient ahead of a coming surge in food demand, said Ruan Wei of the Norinchukin Research Institute.
But unapproved crops have crept into the fields despite regulators' efforts, stirring distrust of modified foods both in China and abroad. Illegally grown modified rice was detected twice last June in rice noodles bound for Japan. And in February, papaya cultivated with such technology not yet approved by regulators here was found in canned products imported by Maruha Nichiro from Thailand. The Southeast Asian country's drought pushed a long-time supplier to incorporate genetically modified crops from other farms, the importer said.
Technology enabling targeted editing of a plant's genome now promises to spur a new wave of genetically modified foods. The Japanese government has begun experimenting with the technology to produce potatoes with nontoxic sprouts and high-yield rice.
"Genome modification can be hard to detect" if applied subtly to create changes on the same scale as natural mutations, said Kazunari Kondo of the National Institute of Health Sciences.
Altered microorganisms are also growing more common worldwide in producing such additives as vitamin C and glutamic acid, used to make MSG. Such biologically derived substances are chemically identical to their counterparts produced through more standard means and require no special screening if certain standards are met. Such companies as seasonings maker Ajinomoto are reluctant to reveal precise methods, aiming to protect intellectual property and deter competitors.
Genetic modification and genome editing are in a sense modern extension of selective breeding: the process of choosing the best-tasting or highest-yielding crops for next season's planting that over generations has defined modern agriculture.
But people remain leery of technology advancing too fast. A market-based potential solution would have companies and farmers publish information on their ingredients and production methods, and then let consumers decide. Still, "we need to think about who puts forth the effort in risk communication," said Kazuaki Miyagishima, the World Health Organization's food safety chief. Consumers will have to educate themselves to a certain extent and prepare to shoulder a portion of the cost of a safer food supply.
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