[TOKYO] Japan is to tighten its safety regulations on genetically modified crops following the publication last month of research suggesting that pollen from Bt corn could harm the larvae of monarch butterflies (see Nature 399, 214; 1999).
The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) announced last week that it will suspend approval of Bt crops for agricultural purposes until its committee on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has established criteria for evaluating the safety of such crops.
Japan has already approved the importation of six types of Bt corn for use as foodstuffs, but the commercial planting of seed produced by US companies, such as Monsanto, has not yet been approved.
Yutaka Tabei of the ministry's safety evaluation division says the harmful effect of Bt toxins on non-target insects was not entirely unexpected. "The results were not surprising, given that the butterfly larvae were fed leaves dusted with pollen from Bt corn," he says. "But we must carry out further studies -- including those on the spread of pollen -- to assess any potential impact such crops may have in the natural environment."
There is a strong emphasis on the concept of 'substantial equivalence', under which GM foods are compared with analogous conventional foods in terms of characteristics such as toxicity and nutritional qualities. At present, the GMO committee predicts the potential ecological impact of Bt crops to be "negligible" in the natural environment. But it is emphasizing the importance of carrying out safety tests by simulating various environmental conditions.
The committee plans to release revised safety evaluation protocols by the end of this year, basing its final decision on safety studies carried out by Japanese institutions.
The move represents the first major step by the government to review the potential ecological risks of GM crops. Until the launch of a research project in April to examine the long-term effects of herbicide- and insect-tolerant crops on ecology and agricultural practices (see Nature 398, 655; 1999), the main safety concern about GM foods had focused on the risk to health.
Debates about GMOs had therefore centred on the labelling of products that contain genetically modified ingredients. Such foods are currently not labelled in Japan, and MAFF is expected to decide by the end of the year whether to require products containing GMOs to be labelled as such (see Nature 395, 628; 1998).
Japan's regulations on GMOs, which are overseen by the Ministry of Health and Welfare for food safety and by MAFF for field use, are based on guidelines set out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Although MAFF requires farm-scale trials of GM crops, critics say these are inadequate, as its safety evaluation protocols overlook proper assessments for long-term and 'unexpected' risks to genetic diversity.
"Although MAFF's safety evaluation of Bt corn requires tests on its impact on non-target species such as mice and ladybirds, it excludes tests on butterflies by ruling out the possibility of pollen depositing on other plant species," says Setsuko Yasuda, director-general of Japan's Consumers' Association.
Many see MAFF's decision to review its safety protocols as a step towards gaining public support for developments of GM technology in Japan. Japan Tobacco are planning to develop GM rice, and other companies are embarking on research into GM trees for high pulp yield and insect-tolerant GM flowers.
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Last Updated on 6/26/99
By Karen Lutz