TOKYO -- Consumer groups are taking aim at Aug. 20 recommendations by an Environment Ministry expert committee that some genetically modified organisms (GMO) be deregulated.
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The expert committee proposed deregulation of organisms edited to remove or deactivate certain genes as opposed to adding new code, but critics are claiming this is "the same as genetic manipulation," and that it is "strange" to exempt it from government restrictions.
"They (the committee) came to this conclusion after just two meetings. How can they say it's safe?" said Consumers Union of Japan secretariat chief Michiyo Koketsu. "We need a debate that includes a wide range of experts, not just a small section of the research community."
Research is already well underway in Japan on creating meatier red sea bream by disabling a gene that suppresses muscle growth. In cases like these -- of disabling genes as opposed to replacing or recombining DNA -- if the edited fish went to market without any report to the government, how could it be distinguished from organisms created through gene manipulation? Inspectors can identify organisms created through gene replacement by the DNA added to the plant's or animal's genome. However, in organisms with a disabled gene, it is impossible to tell if this was the result of deliberate editing or natural environmental factors.
Some critics have also pointed to the risk of harmful genetic edits, such as creating allergens by deleting a gene by mistake.
"I value the expert committee's recommendation to make it a rule in principle that a report be filed with the government so that things can be managed before the product melts into the market, but the committee hasn't sufficiently considered the possibility of unintentional genetic changes," said Kazuki Maeda, chief planner for the consumer group Seikatsu Club Consumers' Co-operative Union. "At the very least, I want the government to label products that have been genetically edited so consumers can choose."
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is set to start its own consideration of the safety of genetically edited foods, but one senior ministry official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We can't really go in a different direction than the Environment Ministry." Meanwhile, genetically edited food labeling methods are set to be discussed by the Consumer Affairs Agency in the near future.
According to Hokkaido University professor of bioethics Tetsuya Ishii, "The expert committee's deliberations were limited by the fact they were considering the most advanced genome editing technology in the context of current law. It would not be surprising if their quick conclusion (on deregulation) invited the same kind of court filings by citizens' groups and other parties that we saw in Europe."
Nagoya University sociologist Masashi Tachikawa, a specialist on genetic editing regulations, commented, "Technology advances very quickly, so the government should create provisional frameworks and manage things with an eye to what the international community is doing, and then consider drafting new laws as necessary."
(Japanese original by Suzuko Araki and Norikazu Chiba, Science & Environment News Department)