From Bio Journal - September 2005

Trend: Buffer zones focal point in Hokkaido bylaw to regulate GM cultivation

On 4 July 2005, Hokkaido's Food Safety and Security Committee (see: BJ May 2005), an advisory body to the Governor of Hokkaido, held a meeting and discussed details of the regulations contained in its bylaw controlling GM crop cultivation. The Chair of the Committee, Hirokazu Matsui, a graduate school professor of Hokkaido University, presented a proposal to take safety measures by making buffer zones twice as wide as MAFF guidelines. Although there were others who expressed reservations over preventative measures for intercrossing, because there is not enough scientific data or evidence, the Chair's proposal was endorsed by the Committee on 11 August, with some exceptional conditions, e.g. if bagging is used the buffer zone can be smaller. Apparently, the Committee considered the Hokuriku Research Center's multi-resistant GM rice open-air research, which is located only 220m away from nearby farmland. The proposed buffer zone for the GM rice cultivation is set at more than 300m (Table 1).

On 13 July, a citizens' group called Hokkaido No GM Rice Network made a proposal to bring to a halt to the NARCH open-air research on a GM rice, which is planned to start from 2007. The GM rice in question was tested on open farmland in 2003, and resulted in poor harvests far below the advance publicity, which had promised higher yields. On top of the noticeable planning failure, the NARCH yet again announced its plan to re-open its GM rice open-air research while Hokkaido's bylaw is still under discussion, provoking a backlash from citizens.

Table 1) Comparison between the Hokkaido proposal and MAFF guidelines on buffer zones
GM cropHokkaido proposal
MAFF guideline
GM rice52*26
GM soybean2010
GM maize1200600
GM rapeseed1200600
GM beet20001080**
* If GM rice heading [ear emergence] time is more than two weeks before or after that of nearby rice, but otherwise more than 300m
** Data from Hokunoukai - a juridical foundation related to Hokkaido agriculture. MAFF guidelines do not indicate any buffer zone for GM beet cultivation.

Unapproved GM Bt10 maize also detected at Kamaishi port and Hakata port

MAFF has been checking unapproved insecticide GM maize "Bt10" (developed by Syngenta) in imported feed grain cargos from the U.S., and is finding it repeatedly (see: BJ July 2005). on 13 July 2005, MAFF announced Bt10 detection at Kamaishi port (Iwate Prefecture), and again on 4 August at Hakata port (Fukuoka Prefecture) (Table 2). Unapproved Bt10 has been detected in 7 cargos as of 4 August.

Additionally, MAFF announced on 20 July 2005, that it has not found any unapproved Starlink (GM Bt maize developed by Bayer CropScience) in imported cargos since the second half of 2003. Import control of Starlink has been conducted since 2000, and contamination was found until the first half of 2003 (see: BJ February 2004).

Table 2) Bt10 detection results
Date of MAFF announcementDate of Bt10 detectionPort of arrivalAmount of grain
1 June 2005May 31Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture390
3 June 2005June 3Tomakomai, Hokkaido Prefecture822
Additional detectionJune 16Tomakomai, Hokkaido Prefecture1,170
23 June 2005June 23Shibushi, Kagoshima Prefecture4,170
6 July 2005July 5Tomakomai, Hokkaido Prefecture1,429
11 July 2005July 11Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture3,880
13 July 2005July 12Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture1,277
4 August 2005August 4Hakata, Fukuoka Prefecture7,674
Bt10 contamination-positive total: 20,812 tons as of 4 August 2005 (Source: Incorporated Administrative Agency - Fertilizer and Feed Inspection Services)

GM Green Pepper to prevent Alzheimer's disease

While working on the development of a vaccine for Alzheimer's disease, a team of researchers under Professor Shoichi Ishiura at Tokyo University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences have developed a GM green (bell) pepper as an "oral vaccine" ("edible drug") that shows a gradual effectiveness. A gene concerned with the production of beta-amyloid protein, thought to be the cause of Alzheimer's disease, was introduced into green pepper by use of the tobacco mosaic virus as vector. 100 micrograms of the protein accumulates in each gram of green pepper leaf, and it is reported that antibodies increased when mice were fed the leaf. (Nikkei Biotech 2005/07/18)

"Oral vaccine" development plant to be constructed

Working towards full commercial production of oral vaccines ("edible drugs"), the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), jointly with Nippon Paper and The Kitasato Institute, are putting up 600 million yen to construct a pilot plant. Plants such as rice, tobacco and strawberries will be used to develop GM varieties that will produce antibodies, interferon and so on. (Nikkei Biotech 2005/07/18)

Tsukuba University starts open-air test on GM eucalyptus

On 5 July 2005, Professor Kazuo Watanabe and his team at the Graduate School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Tsukuba, in Ibaraki Prefecture, announced that they will start open-air trials of GM eucalyptus tree in the university's own agricultural research field from this September. The GM eucalyptus is genetically modified to increase its salt tolerance by inserting genes from soil bacteria. If it is approved for field trials, the team will immediately conduct the open-air trial. Their plan is to plant a maximum of 20 GM eucalyptus trees. If these trials are conducted, they will be the first outdoor cultivation of GM trees in Japan. (Mainichi Shinbun, Ibaraki edition, 2005/07/07)

Niigata mayors pass resolution to halt field trial of GM rice

On 22 July 2005, the Association of City Mayors of Niigata Prefecture (Chairman, Tamio Mori, Mayor of Nagaoka City) unanimously adopted a resolution demanding the halt of the defensin-producing GM rice field trials currently being conducting in Joetsu City by the Hokuriku Research Center, Niigata Prefecture (see: BJ July and August 2005). The resolution was adopted on the grounds that the research centre has failed to give satisfactory explanation of the trials, and that public anxiety may result since there is strong opposition to GM crops among consumers. (Niigata Nippo 2005/07/22)

MAFF approves four GM maize varieties for Type I usage

On 21 July 2005, a general review session of the biodiversity impact assessment investigative commission (jointly hosted by the Environmental Ministry) was held, at which the commission approved four GM maize varieties, including Monsanto's herbicide resistant GM maize, under the Type I usage rule. The Type I usage rule means that the GM crops are evaluated as having no impact on wild fauna and flora in accordance with the domestic Cartagena Law. Among the approved four varieties, three were GMO hybrid varieties, the fourth being a GMO hybrid containing three traits (Lepidoptera resistance - Coleoptera resistance - Glufosinate tolerance) which was approved for the first time.

MEXT approves two new human ES cell research programs

The MEXT specialist committee overseeing human ES cell research held a meeting on 15 July 2005, at which were approved applications from the graduate schools of Okayama and Kyoto Universities for research projects using human ES cells. (See BJ July 2005) The research plans are for research including induction of differentiation on previously produced ES cells. The two institutions will use human ES cells produced by Kyoto University Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences, and will carry out fundamental research into differentiation and so on, Okayama University aiming to produce liver cells, and Kyoto University aiming to produce retina cells. On the same day, a further application for the use of human ES cells from Tokyo Metropolitan University was discussed, but no decision was reached because it was judged that the deliberations of the university ethics committee had been insufficient.

MEXT invites ROK human clone embryo researchers

A meeting of the MEXT working group considering the production of clone human embryos, human embryos artificially produced outside the body using cloning techniques, was held on 25 July 2005. (See BJ Aug 2005) A hearing to which were invited the South Korean (ROK) researchers HONG Hyunsoo of the Center of Life Science and Society (CLSS, Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture) and Professor MOON Shinyong, the central figure in the research team at Seoul University research team that produced ES cells from human clone embryo for the first time, HONG Hyunsoo first gave an introduction of the legal system concerning bioethics in South Korea. Following that, Prof. MOON Shinyong reported on the state of research in South Korea. According to HONG Hyunsoo, the production of human clone embryos is forbidden under South Korean law except for the purposes of treatment of previously incurable diseases. However, included among the incurable diseases which have limited approval for the use of human clone embryos are many diseases such as Huntingdon's disease and congenital immunological syndrome, which are genetic disorders, and for which in the future there is a strong possibility that human clone embryo research and gene therapy might be used in combination.

Closeup: What is going to be discussed and decided at the Codex meeting in Japan?

From 19 September 2005, the Codex Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology 5th Session will be held in Makuhari, Chiba Prefecture, in order to make international standards concerning safety measures on GM food. During the previous task force, which was held between 2000 and 2003, also in Japan, "foods derived from GM animals" was not discussed, and therefore presumably it will be discussed at this task force along with so-called second and third generation GMOs, and also unauthorised GMOs. First, they will have to decide and agree what should be on the agenda for the four years of the new task force.

The Codex Secretariat presented a list of areas as follows:
  1. Foods derived from transgenic animals (including fish), including foods derived from cloned animals
  2. Foods derived from plants expressing bioactive substances, or nutritionally-enhanced plants
  3. Foods derived from plants with "stacked" genes (i.e. several genes conferring different traits in the same plant)
  4. Biopharming
  5. Plants expressing pharmaceutical or other non-food substances
  6. Low level presence of unauthorized genetically engineered foods in authorized foods
  7. Comparative food composition analysis
Currently in Japan, R&D on GM plants for so-called second generation GMOs, which have some kind of consumer merit, e.g. "iron enriched GM lettuce", and third generation GMOs, also called "edible drugs", e.g. "cedar pollen allergenic rice", are being conducted at a fever pitch.

Moreover, unapproved GMO contamination is continuing to be detected in Japan, e.g. unapproved GM maize Starlink and unapproved GM maize Bt10. The Japanese government is now considering the introduction of a tolerance level of unapproved GMO. This in fact is essentially an acceptance of contamination.

At the task force, non-food use GM plants, e.g. GM maize for producing plastic and ethanol, and GM trees for producing pulp, might also be discussed.

However, the most controversial topic of this task force could be foods derived from GM animals including GM fish and GM insects. Until now, GM foods were basically derived from GM plants, but more and more GM animals may be entering the food chain. In the US, several GM animals are being developed. Notably, the commercialization of GM fish, such as a GM Atlantic salmon with accelerated growth, is close at hand.

Therefore, citizen and consumer organizations are setting their hopes on responsible discussion at the codex task force. At the same time, since there is a risk that the deliberations could lead to an official go-ahead for foods derived from GM animals, it is probably true that citizen and consumer organizations should take a prudent approach to the task force discussions.

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