Japanese Choke on American Biofood
Genetically altered produce reaps opposition. But moves
to label it threaten $11 billion in U.S. sales.
By SONNI EFRON, LA Times Staff Writer
TOKYO--The video whirs, and an American
food exporter's nightmare rolls across the
screen. A potato bug is shown munching on the
deep green leaf of a potato plant--genetically
engineered in the United States, the narrator says, to
produce a toxin that kills Colorado potato bug
larvae. The bug falls off the leaf, flailing its legs in
the air in what looks like insect agony.
"They say this is safe, but I don't want to eat it.
Do you?" asked the filmmaker, Junichi Kowaka, in
Surveys show that most Japanese do not. In this
land where food is considered most delicious when
eaten raw or as close to its natural state as
possible, genetically manipulated food is seen as
synthetic, unwholesome and definitely
To blunt a nascent consumer rebellion, the
Japanese government has proposed labeling
bioengineered food to give consumers the freedom
to reject it. That in turn has alarmed the United
States, which fears that the move could threaten its
$11-billion annual sales--including about $1.3
billion from California--to Japan, the No. 1 market
for U.S. agricultural exports.
Japan is not the only nation gagging at the idea
of genetically altered fare. A truly global food fight
is underway. The outcome of the regulatory,
marketing and public perception battle that has
been joined in Japan could have far-reaching
effects on what U.S. farmers plant next year, on the
skyrocketing U.S.-Japan trade imbalance and on the
struggle between biofood promoters and foes for
the hearts and palates of consumers around the
At issue in the emotional political debate that
has erupted worldwide is how much to regulate and
whether and how to label genetically modified
organisms, known in biospeak as GMOs. These
organisms are created when new genes--sometimes
from another species--are introduced into a plant or
animal to produce "desirable" traits, such as
resistance to cold, pests, disease, spoilage or even
a particular brand of herbicide.
While U.S. farmers are quickly increasing the
acreage planted with GMO seeds--to 40% or more
of some crops--there is growing opposition in
Europe, Japan and in some Third World countries
on environmental, health, philosophical or religious
grounds. The European Union has slapped
restrictions on genetically modified plants and
passed a law requiring GMO foods to be labeled.
Well-organized environmental groups are
crusading against what they have branded
"Frankenstein food," fanning doubts about the
products from Iceland to New Zealand. Anti-GMO
protests have been staged in the Philippines, India
and Hungary, according to activists, who are
flooding the Internet with virulent attacks on
biofoods. In London, where foes dumped bags of
bioengineered soybeans onto Downing Street in
protest last month, a poll by the Independent
newspaper found that 68% of Britons were
"worried" about eating GMO food. Only 27% said
they were happy to eat it.
Not all countries are hostile to foods altered by
gene-splicing: GMO seeds reportedly have
received a warm welcome in Russia, China and
Argentina. And plenty of consumers have nothing
against GMO foods so long as they know what is
on the menu. A 1994 poll in Australia, for example,
found that 61% were happy to try GMO foods, but
89% wanted them labeled. Australia and New
Zealand are now trying to set up a common labeling
system. New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley
said earlier this month that consumers have a right
to know whether their food contains GMOs.
Nevertheless, a heated battle broke out last
month at a U.N.-sponsored conference in
Cartagena, Colombia, where delegates from more
than 130 countries failed to agree on an
international treaty to govern biosafety and trade in
The U.S. government warned that the
restrictions being debated in Cartagena would
paralyze international trade. According to media
reports and conference participants, the United
States and five other agricultural exporters that
opposed labeling GMOs were bitterly accused by
the other nations of torpedoing a global
environmental pact to safeguard the interests of
their farmers and biotech firms.
The debate is by no means limited to food.
Genetically modified material is being used in a
wide range of products, from textiles to
Food Draws the Most Emotional Response
Yet it is food that seems to generate the most
Consumer advocates say that people must have
the right to know--and thus reject--food that has
been subjected to genetic "tampering."
Biotech backers say that requiring such labels is
tantamount to branding demonstrably safe food as
inedible and would raise food prices for all
Proponents of bioengineering also say
"genetically enhanced" species are essential to
generate the crop yields needed to nourish the
world's exploding population and to reduce use of
herbicides and pesticides. They say the foods have
been exhaustively tested and demonstrated to be
safe enough to pass muster with the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration and the Environmental
Protection Agency, as well as international
Foes assert that long-term studies on the effects
of eating GMO foods have been inadequate. They
question the environmental risks of developing
pest-resistant or chemical-resistant crops, and they
fear that bionic organisms could crowd out native
A subtext in many countries is suspicion of
scientific "miracles," new technologies and
imperfect regulators, and the perception that the
U.S. biotech industry has been heavy-handed in
trying to shove new foods down frightened
consumers' throats, said Beth Burrows, president of
the nonprofit Edmonds Institute in Edmonds, Wash.,
who attended the Cartagena conference.
Europeans have been sensitized to food-safety
issues by the outbreak of "mad cow" disease. In
Japan, the credibility of the Ministry of Health and
Welfare was severely damaged by the 1996
revelation that its bureaucrats had knowingly
allowed the sale of HIV-tainted blood products--a
scandal that broke the same year that the ministry
approved the first of 22 GMO crops for human
Availability of GMO foods in Japan has not led
to acceptance. More than 80% of those questioned
in a 1997 government survey said they have
"reservations" about such foods, and 92.5%
favored mandatory labeling.
Unease is beginning to translate into action. The
city of Fujisawa, near Tokyo, has banned all GMO
foodstuffs from its school lunches. A tofu maker has
begun advertising its product as
"recombinant-DNA-soybean free." And a number
of powerful food-buying co-ops--which claim
nearly 20 million members, or about 1 in every 6
Japanese--are trying to screen out or label GMO
"It seems Americans only care about the quantity
of their food, but Japanese are concerned about the
quality," filmmaker Kowaka said. "Nobody wants
to eat this stuff."
Kowaka is a food-safety activist with the Japan
Descendants Fund, a nonprofit group that has
succeeded in provoking widespread concern among
Japanese consumers about chemical-emitting
plastics in food packaging and the use of
post-harvest chemicals on food. Last year, a
number of ramen makers changed their packaging
after Kowaka's group reported that chemicals
suspected of disrupting the human endocrine system
leached from the plastic bowls when boiling water
was poured over the dried noodles.
Kowaka's current video, titled "The Dangers of
Recombinant-DNA Food," has sold about 1,000
copies at $130 each and is being shown at lectures
and gatherings by consumer, environmental and
religious groups, he said.
The Japanese government is countering
anti-GMO groups like Kowaka's with a campaign
to convince a skeptical Japanese public that
genetically altered foods are not only safe but
In fact, despite its draft proposal for a GMO
labeling law, the Japanese government has been
actively promoting biotechnology as a vital
technology for the coming century and is investing
billions to try to turn Japan into a world-class
competitor. It is even attempting to genetically
engineer strains of rice that will be tastier and
hardier than conventional varieties.
The politics of genetically engineered food here
have been complicated by the fact that all the GMO
foods offered for sale so far have been imported.
Japanese companies have not dared introduce
gene-spliced foods of their own, and although
farmers can legally plant GMO seeds, so far none
has chosen to do so, said Kazuhiko Kawamura,
who deals with the labeling issue at the Ministry of
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Foreign food producers complain that Japan's
powerful agricultural interests are trying to scare
off consumers from GMO foods as part of a
campaign to boost domestic agriculture.
"Over the last 30 years, there has been a
concerted effort here in Japan to paint imported
foods as being dangerous, as being less desirable,"
said Dennis Kitch, Japan director of the U.S.
The effort has included everything from
asserting to Japanese that their intestines are ill
designed for digesting Western beef to convincing
them that foreign produce is more chemical-laden
than home-grown fare. Though false, U.S. officials
and industry sources say, such claims have
succeeded in instilling alimentary xenophobia.
Kowaka's video is no exception. As the narrator
warns that "we Japanese are being used as guinea
pigs" for inadequately tested GMO foods, the
camera shows unwitting children eating French
fries--by suggestion, those made from genetically
altered plants that kill potato bugs--at that
archetypal American eatery, McDonald's.
"They think all imported food is bad. That gets
to be protectionist," said a U.S. government official
who argues that GMO labeling should not be used
to reinforce unfounded consumer fears.
U.S. Wants Japan to Accept Standards
The United States has decided to require labels
on genetically altered foods that are nutritionally
different from traditional fare, that might contain
allergens or that pose religious problems--such as a
plant containing a pig gene--if and when any are
introduced. Yet it doesn't require labeling of foods
whose chemistry is essentially unchanged, solely
on the basis of genetic origin. GMO foes in the
United States have filed suit in an attempt to
reverse that decision, but meanwhile, the U.S.
government is lobbying Japan to accept its
"We're asking them not to have a labeling
requirement that stokes the fear that these foods are
bad without any basis in fact," said a U.S. official,
adding that there is no evidence these foods are
Kowaka insisted, however, that a potato with an
inborn insecticide is no ordinary spud, and should
bear a warning label if it cannot be banned
The Japanese committee studying labeling for
the Agriculture Ministry has not yet ruled on the
issue or decided what any label would say. The
influential American Chamber of Commerce in
Japan warns that GMO labeling "will create new
nontariff trade barriers to imports." And while U.S.
officials are trying to keep their criticisms
scientific and low-key, they also have hinted to
Japan that they may protest any mandatory labeling
requirement to the World Trade Organization--as
they have done over the European Union law.
Japanese consumer advocates are outraged by
the American stance.
Setsuko Yasuda, who runs the "No! GMO"
campaign for the Consumers Union of Japan, said
Americans should not meddle with Japan's right to
regulate food safety and quality.
If Americans truly believe in free trade and
consumer choice, she said, they should label GMO
food for what it is and let international customers
make up their own minds.
"But to try to hide information [about product
origin] and force-feed people what they don't want
to eat . . . is wrong," Yasuda said. "It is American
arrogance, and it will provoke anti-American
sentiment here. You will lose hearts around the
For Japan and the United States, the stakes in the
GMO battle are high. Japan absorbs nearly 20% of
all U.S. food exports. With the American farm
economy ravaged by the Asian economic crisis, the
affluent Japanese market is one that farmers and
food processors can ill afford to lose, grain
lobbyist Kitch said. Japan's decision on labeling
will be vital, and not just because of the size of its
market; Tokyo's decisions tend to influence
regulators in other Asian capitals.
For Japanese, who must import more than half
of the calories they consume each day, the
increasing prevalence of GMOs in their food
supply reinforces a feeling of food vulnerability.
For example, 97% of Japan's soybeans are
imported, mostly from the United States, and are
turned into tofu, fermented miso, natto and other
staples of the Japanese diet. However, 28% of last
year's U.S. soybean crop came from GMO seeds,
according to the American Soybean Assn. That
percentage could double when farmers plant this
"We will have to find non-GMO sources,"
Yasuda said, adding that if American farmers want
Japan's business, they will have to segregate crops.
Trouble is, U.S. farmers often plant GMO and
traditional crops in the same field, use the same
machinery to harvest and transport them, and pour
their grains into container ships that bring a river of
food across the Pacific to Japan.
However, DNA testing is so sensitive that it can
detect one GMO part per trillion, Kitch said. That
means a few stray kernels of GMO corn could
"contaminate" bushels. To certify a product
GMO-free would require costly testing and
segregation at every stage in the processing and
distribution chain, he said.
These obstacles have so far prevented Europe
from fully implementing its labeling law, industry
As GMO crops or livestock come to dominate
the U.S. market, genetically pristine products will
become scarcer and more costly.
No one knows how much more
expensive--though some estimate a "GMO-free"
label could add 30% or more to the price, and
wonder whether Japanese consumers will be
willing to pay it.
Japan's draft proposal on labeling does not
specify how pure a non-GMO product would have
to be. But without a threshold standard, a can of
California tomato paste containing a smidgen of
cornstarch that might have been made partly from
GMO corn could wind up with a warning
label--even if the tomatoes are all natural, Kitch
Consumer advocate Yasuda and her allies say
that imperfect labeling is better than none. And the
fewer the "food miles" from farm to dinner table
the better, they argue, even if home-grown fare is
"Now, with globalization, we don't know where
our food comes from, how it is produced, and what
kind of contaminants it might contain," Yasuda said.
"Does free trade automatically mean that the
cheapest food is the best food? We don't think so."
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved
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