From Bio Journal - May 2004

The Situation with GM Wheat in North America (Part One)

Canada Negative towards GM Wheat

From 21-28 March 2004, a group of six representatives of Japanese consumers took a petition opposing GM wheat, signed by 414 organizations and representing 1.2 million people, to Canada and the USA. The application for approval of herbicide resistant GM wheat, filed by Monsanto at the end of 2002, is now undergoing the review process, and the focus of the mission to North America was on whether or not the GM wheat variety would be approved by the two governments.

At the outset, not wishing to repeat the bungling recall problem with a non-approved variety that gets into the human food distribution system, as happened with the Starlink contamination case, Monsanto attempted to gain simultaneous approval for its GM wheat from several countries, including the main exporters, by 2005. However, resistance to the GM wheat is strong in Canada, and the application is yet to be filed in Japan, the largest importer. It now looks very possible that the USA alone will approve the new variety.

In Canada, the Canadian Wheat Board, which handles all the wheat produced, has come out in opposition to the GM wheat. Opposition is also growing among Canadian farmers, who have seen the gene pollution problems caused by GM canola, which has resulted in a decrease in importers and a sharp drop in the price of the product. The government has also suspended joint development with Monsanto earlier this year (see BJ March 2004). Basically, feeling about the GM wheat variety is quite negative.

However, since the approval system is independently operated and cannot be interfered with by the government or other actors, it is thought that approval for the GM wheat is simply a matter of time. If it is approved then it is very probable that the USA and Monsanto will work through the WTO and NAFTA to put pressure on other countries to accept the GM wheat variety. Many Canadian producers and consumers may be faced with a situation where they are not able to oppose the cultivation of the GM wheat.

Dangers for Japan's Dinner Tables

The GM spring wheat variety that has been developed by Monsanto is not a variety that can grow during winter, but one which ripens when there is a long period of good, dry weather. It is a hard wheat, rich in gluten, and ideal for bread-making. The conventional forms of spring wheat are used in almost all bread made in Japan and in some Chinese-style noodles as well. For both Canada and the USA, the largest export market for spring wheat is Japan. However, since it can be grown only in cold areas, in the USA it is grown in only four states, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana.

Japan has been importing wheat from only three countries; Canada, the USA, and Australia, the USA being the largest supplier, with Canada in second place. Spring wheat is of especially good quality and its proportion in total wheat imports is high. If GM wheat cultivation begins the proportion of GM wheat reaching Japan's dinner tables will be high. Furthermore, Japan's 10 million elementary and junior high school children eat wheat products such as bread or noodles for their school lunches on average 2.3 times a week.

The Canadian Response

On 22 March 2004, our group held a press conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the capital of the largest wheat-producing province in Canada. Four television stations covered the press conference, which was reported nationwide and was also reported in over 20 newspapers. There was also a radio interview recorded and an interview given to a trade magazine. It is plain to see that media interest in the attitudes of Japanese consumers was high.

Patty Rosher, Senior Program Manager at The Canadian Wheat Board, Fred Tait, former Vice President of the Canadian National Farmers Union, and representatives from organic producers' organizations attended the meeting with Canadian citizens' groups in the afternoon. During the meeting, Patty Rosher stated that, "The fact that GM wheat has no benefits for consumers is strongly echoed by producers as well, the only one who will benefit from GM wheat being Monsanto. In order for GM wheat to be accepted, the understanding of both consumers and producers is necessary, and if that is not forthcoming we will not accept it. We are now requesting the government to evaluate the wheat not only on a scientific basis, but also from an overall position of who will benefit from it. We are waiting for the response now."

On 23 March, the group visited Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (the Canadian federal ministry of agriculture) in Ottawa for negotiations. The petition brought from Japan was first presented to the ministry officials. The negotiations were attended by four department heads, indicating the importance to which the ministry attached to the visit of the group. The ministry's view was limited to stating that, "As the safety review is being carried out by an independent body, we are simply awaiting the result of that review. The review is carried out on a scientific basis and we cannot interfere with that process. In Canada, if the wheat is approved as a result of the safety review, there is still one further process, the variety registration review that must take place before the variety can be commercialized. This review takes place once a year, and since Monsanto's wheat variety has not been submitted for this review this year, final approval cannot take place until next year or later.

"Canada is a food exporting country and we place great importance on the opinions of our customers. At the same time, scientific progress is also important, and we think it is vital to balance these issues. We think that in the future it will be necessary to evaluate crops not only on a scientific basis, but to also to add into the approval process an evaluation of consumer acceptability for the product."

In the next issue, we will report on the response to the mission in the USA.

We would like to express our sincere gratitude for the help given to the group by the Council of Canadians in Canada and the Dakota Resource Council in the USA in arranging meetings and press conferences.

(Keisuke Amagasa)

Note: On 10 May 2004, Monsanto announced that it was suspending development of its herbicide tolerant GM wheat variety.

Nippon Paper Industries to go ahead with GM eucalyptus field trial

Nippon Paper Industries Co., Ltd. has announced its decision to conduct domestic field trials of its environmental stress tolerant GM eucalyptus. It will be the first cultivation of a GM tree in Japan. The environmental impact is expected to be much larger than for farm crops, because a trees live longer and might possibly survive for hundreds or thousands of years, continuing to spread its pollen for all of that time. The conditions for the field trial approval will be draw a lot of careful attention.

Assessment on biodiversity impact starts in Japan

On 8, 15 and 16 March 2004, the biodiversity impact assessment investigative commission, which is a joint commission of MAFF and the Ministry of the Environment, examined 12 GM crops based on the domestic laws concerning biosafety, which came into force on February 19, 2004. The 12 crops were; 1 GM blue carnation (Suntory Flowers), 3 insecticidal GM maize varieties (Monsanto), 1 herbicide resistant GM cotton (Monsanto), 2 dwarf GM rice (National Institute of Agrobiological Science - NIAS), 1 allergenic GM rice for cedar pollen hay fever (NIAS), 1 tryptophan high- accumulation GM rice (NIAS), 2 insecticidal maize varieties (Syngenta) and 1 insecticidal and herbicide resistant GM maize (Dow Chemical). The commission is supposed to examine the impact on biodiversity, however the commission used the conventional process of approval by asking the public to send in comments.

MHLW, intensive discussion regarding the use of aborted foetuses

On March 18, 2004, an expert committee on the clinical study of the use of human ES cells (advisory body to the Welfare Minister, Health Science Council) was held and had an intensive discussion on the matter of using cells from aborted foetuses, following on from the previous session. Opinions are divided on whether the committee should also be looking into the ethical considerations or only deciding about the procedure for informed consent. A member of the committee, Ryuichi Ida (professor of Kyoto graduate school) advocated strongly that "we cannot excuse ourselves on the basis that we are here simply to decide on procedural aspects, because the rules we decide will be considered to be the ethical values of Japan". Moreover, there were some opinions which pointed out that using aborted foetuses for research purposes might lead to an incentive for increased abortions. In the end, nothing was concluded, and therefore the discussions will be continued at further sessions.

Heated discussions over human embryo in Cabinet Office Council for Science and Technology Policy

A meeting of the specialist panel on bioethics (which reports to the Cabinet Office Council for Science and Technology Policy) held a meeting on 4 April 2004. As in the previous meeting, the direction to take following the publication of the interim report on the handling of human embryos was discussed. The deadline for the final report is June, so little time remains, but at the moment there is a very rigid standoff between the proponents of regenerative medicine, who wish to see an immediate end to the moratorium on the use of cloned embryos because of the possibilities of the use of embryos in their field, and those who wish to take a more prudent approach, and who believe that it is too early for an end to the moratorium because of the large number of abnormalities seen in animal experiments and the fact that there is still too much that we do not understand about embryos. The deliberations are proceeding extremely slowly, if at all.

Closeup: Problems with the interim report on human embryos

In December 2003, the Cabinet Office Council for Science and Technology Policy specialist panel on bioethics published its interim report entitled "Basic Thinking on the Handling of Human Embryos". The human embryo is the group of cells, existing up to about eight days following fertilization, which is the early form of the new human individual. The specialist panel has been continuing deliberations concerning the handling of the human embryo since August 2001, based on the supplementary provisions to Japan's human clone law (Law concerning Regulation relating to Human Cloning Techniques and Other Similar Techniques), which states that a conclusion must be reached within three years, the deadline for the final report being June 2004.

The whole story begins with the February 1997 paper from the Roslin Institute concerning Dolly the cloned sheep. The reason for the shockwaves that were sent around the world because of this announcement was that a clone had been successfully produced from a somatic cell taken from an adult sheep. Following Dolly's birth, the debate over the application of cloning techniques to humans began in all countries of the world. In Japan, a sub-committee on cloning was set up in the Science and Technology Council (now the Council for Science and Technology Policy). In November 1998, Geron Corporation (USA) announced that it had successfully produced a human ES cell. ES cells are produced by destroying human embryos. At this point the sub-committee on human embryo research was set up within the Council.

The common factor between the advanced scientific techniques of cloning and ES cells is the manipulation of the human embryo. Up to this point, there had been almost no public debate on the handling of human embryos in Japan except for a lone report published by the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1985. At the state level, the establishment of the sub-committee on cloning and the sub-committee on human embryo research were the first steps in this direction. However, the two sub-committees studiously avoided any comprehensive discussion of how human embryos themselves should be handled, and concerned themselves mainly with de facto approval of ongoing research. The result of these deliberations was the Japanese human clone law, which simply forbids the production of a new individual. What is prohibited is the transfer of a cloned embryo to a human or animal uterus, a cloned embryo being the new embryo produced by the introduction into a cell of the nucleus from another cell by cloning techniques. The production of cloned embryos was left to the formulation of a guideline under the law, and it was decided that a completely different guideline would be formulated for human ES cells. What was finally added as an annex is the object of the discussion that is now being carried out in the Council for Science and Technology Policy concerning the handling of human embryos. However, the comprehensive discussion concerning the handling of human embryos was once again avoided in the process of putting together the interim report.

In its public comment, the citizens' group DNA Problem Research Association points out that, "The focus of discussions has been limited to the rights and wrongs of the cloned embryo. The use of the human embryo to bring about industrial or commercial profit is a new phenomenon that humans have not experienced before, and is something that is in plain opposition to the view of the human and of life that have been held up to now. This problem has not been discussed at all."

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