From Bio Journal - September 2006

Impact of long-term GM crop cultivation on environment

On 18 July 2006, MAFF released a report entitled "Environmental effects caused by long term GM crop cultivation". Four types of GM crops were covered by this report; 1) herbicide Roundup resistant soybeans, 2) herbicide Roundup resistant oilseed rape, 3) herbicide Roundup resistant maize, 4) virus tolerant rice. The study was conducted between 2001 and 2005, in order to compare the effect on a) flora, b) entomofauna, c) soil microorganisms, d) growth, development and yield of succeeding crop with conventional agriculture. For 2), plants that appeared on a 1 square meter area surrounding a plant, for 3), changes in numbers and so on of the insect Anaphothrips obscurus, and for 1), the viable sell count per 1 gram dry soil were investigated.

When a similar study was conducted in UK, the varying effect on biodiversity of different herbicides was pointed out as well as the effect on the vicinity. However, the MAFF study mentioned neither which herbicides were used, nor the effect on the vicinity. The contents of the report were very shabby, and contained information about only one insect for 3), the viable cell count only with no information about types of cells for 1), and no further information was given for 4). In addition, the report simply concluded that there was no discernable effect on succeeding crops.

Japanese Language Press release
Japanese Language PDF Report

MAFF announces state of investigation into GM canola volunteers

On 18 July 2006, MAFF released a report about the growth of spilled canola, oilseed rape (Brassica napus. L.), around Kashima Port in Ibaraki Prefecture. It concluded that the possibility of reproduction is high, but that the area of growth has not been expanding. The MAFF report did not mention that private citizens have been actively checking and cleaning the areas in order to prevent the expansion of spilled GM canola. The report did not consider those facts, and gave only the standard statement that "the concept and the content of the assessment on biodiversity impact were confirmed as appropriate." The conclusion of the report was a rather dim reflection of reality.

Japanese Language Press release
Japanese Language PDF Report
Additional information in Japanese

Current state of bylaws and guidelines concerning regulation of GM crop cultivation in Japanese prefectures

There are currently a number of local governments (prefectures) which have passed, or are in the process of formulating, bylaws concerning food safety and security. Such bylaws carrying clauses concerning protection against cross-pollination or contamination by GM crops are on the increase. Local governments are also drawing up separate bylaws specifically to deal with GM crop regulation, such as Hokkaido and Niigata. Some prefectures are drawing up their own independent guidelines, such as Shiga and Iwate. In opposition to these moves by the prefectures, MAFF is showing signs of moving towards a the enactment of a law for the co-existence of the three types of farming, GM farming, conventional farming, and organic farming. See the table below for a breakdown of the current situation in the prefectures.

Table 1: Local government (prefecture) bylaws and guidelines regulating GM crop cultivation in Japan
PrefectureBylaws carrying clauses concerning protection against cross-pollination or contamination by GM cropsSpecific arrangements for GM crops
HokkaidoHokkaido Food Safety and Security Bylaw (Enforced from April 2004)Bylaw concerning prevention of cross-pollination and so on due to cultivation of GM crops (Enforced from January 2006)
NiigataNiigata Food Safety and Security Bylaw (Enforced from October 2004) Niigata bylaw concerning prevention of cross-pollination and so on due to cultivation of GM crops (Enforced from May 2006)
ChibaChiba Prefecture bylaw on assuring safety and security of food products, etc. (Enforced from April 2006) Guidelines under discussion
KyotoKyoto bylaw on promotion of food security and safety (Enforced from April 2006) Guidelines on measures etc. for prevention of cross-pollination and contamination by cultivation of GM crops (Draft)
TokushimaTokushima Prefecture bylaw on promotion of food safety and security (Enforced from April 2006) Guidelines on cultivation etc. of GM crops (Drawn up May 2006)
Independent Guidelines and Policies
IbarakiPolicy concerning the cultivation of GM crops (Drawn up March 2004)
ShigaShiga Prefecture Guidelines concerning the cultivation of GM crops (Drawn up August 2004)
IwateGuidelines concerning the regulation of cultivation of GM food crops (Drawn up September 2004)
TokyoGuidelines on handling of cultivation of GM crops in the metropolitan district (Drawn up May 2006)

Suntory develops yellow GM flower

Suntory Limited together with Tohoku University have developed a GM flower, a yellow coloured Torenia. They used a synthesized gene of yellow pigment called Aurone from antirrhinum to change a blue Torenia to yellow. The same genetic engineering method might be used for geranium and African violet in the near future to produce further yellow flowers.

Press release in English

Public hearing held on lifting ban on human clone embryo

The MEXT working group considering production and use of human clone embryo completed its report on 20 June 2006. (See BJ July 2006) This was approved three days later, on 23 June, by the parent committee, the specialist committee on specific embryos and human ES cell research. The report limits the use of (unfertilized) ova for research purposes to those sampled but unused in infertility treatments, and those from ovaries removed during sex-change operations and so on. Gratis donation of ova from volunteer donors remains banned for the time being. In order to solicit opinion on the above, public hearings were scheduled for Osaka (29 June) and Tokyo (26 August), to which organizations representing patients of incurable diseases, and members of infertility self-help groups, and researchers in repro-med will be invited. Following the solicitation of opinions from the general public by the end of August, the report will be presented to the Cabinet Office General Council on Science and Technology, possibly during September.

Production of reproductive cells from somatic stem cells being considered

A meeting of the MEXT working group on bioethics and safety (under the Council for Science and Technology) was held on 2 August 2006, at which it was decided to add the judgment of the merits of production of reproductive cells from somatic stem cells such as bone marrow to the list of matters to be considered. The specialist group is currently considering approval for the production of reproductive cells from ES cells as a way to solve the shortage of unfertilized ova required for research into human clone embryo and is carrying out deliberations in order to revise the current guidelines. Now, in addition to this, is the notion of using somatic stem cells to make possible the mass production of unfertilized ova. As for the international research in this field, an American researcher reported in July 2005 that the bone marrow and blood plasma of mice contain cells which could be precursors for ova. Another American researcher has published a paper in June 2006, however, opposing this view.

GM crop approval data for July 2006

GM crops approved for open field cultivation (Type 1 usage)
(Biodiversity Impact Assessment Investigative Commission)
NameApproval Date*
SoybeanHerbicide toleranceBayer CropScienceA2704-12, OECD UI: ACS-GM005-331 July 2006
SoybeanHerbicide toleranceBayer CropScienceA5547-127, OECD UI: ACS-GM006-431 July 2006
* Technically, approval is granted after public comments have been accepted.

Closeup: Development of GMOs for fuel ethanol

With the recent rise in petrol (gasoline) prices, the use of crops for the production of fuel ethanol has attracted attention and press reports on this subject are on the increase.

A world leader in the field of fuel ethanol, Brazil launched its National Alcohol Programme, PROALCOOL, in 1975, and in the 1980s cars running on 100% ethanol from sugar cane were put on the market. The government cut subsidies to this plan in 1991 and the number of ethanol-fuelled cars decreased. However, flex cars, capable of running on any proportion of an ethanol/petrol blend, have been developed, coming onto the market in March 2003. Since then car manufacturers have raced to develop the flex car and have literally taken the market by storm.

Ethanol was also a little more pricey than petrol, but with rising petrol prices ethanol has now become fully competitive with petrol. Brazil produces around 30% of the world's sugar, but roughly half of Brazil's sugar cane is used in the production of ethanol. This has caused world sugar prices to rise, and brought about the danger of renewed destruction of rainforests as sugar cane producers seek to enlarge their cultivation areas.

As a countermeasure to the Japanese car manufacturers' hybrid car, the USA is now turning towards the flex car. US ethanol production is currently dependent on maize (corn), but in contrast to sugar cane the energy available from ethanol produced from maize is about the same as the energy input for the ethanol production, making the process problematic from an energy point of view. Enter Monsanto, Syngenta and others who are now developing GM maize varieties for increased ethanol production. There is also a lot of activity in the development of GM bacteria strains for improved ethanol production capability.

The use of the octane enhancer ETBE (ethyl tertiary butyl ether, C2H5OC4H9) with ethanol is being promoted by India and Europe. In 2003 the Japanese government revised the law on assuring the quality of volatile oils, making it possible to use a 3% ethanol-petrol blend. From 2004 E3 petrol (3% ethanol) has been distributed on an experimental basis, and validation experiments with ETBE begun. The Taisei Construction Co. Ltd. has established the Bioethanol Japan Kansai Corp., and Daiei Inter Nature System has begun trials to produce ethanol using GM bacteria from construction waste treated with dilute sulphuric acid. The company undertaking the construction of the plant, Tsukishima Kikai Co. Ltd., is also setting up a model enterprise to produce ethanol from sugar cane in Thailand.

When crops are used as raw material for the production of fuel, competition for the same crop for fuel, food and animal feed may occur, resulting in a tug-of-war for the crop between food for poor countries and energy for industrially advanced countries. It is to be hoped that this situation does not get out of hand in the future.

Notes on ethanol:

Ethanol, ethyl alcohol, is C2H6O, and is the main ingredient in alcoholic beverages. Along with other alcohols such as methyl alcohol it is a substance that is widely present in our daily lives. It is volatile and quite inflammable.

It differs from fossil fuels in that the polluting sulphur and nitrogen oxides are not produced when the ethanol is burned as fuel. For this reason it has been receiving attention as a possible fuel in recent years. The politico-financial-bureaucratic sphere is also keen to embrace ethanol fuel as it is exempt from CO2 emission count under the Kyoto Protocol because it originates from plant material, thus resulting in no net increase of CO2 in the atmosphere when burned.

Ethanol for industrial uses (fuel) is distinguished from ethanol for alcoholic beverages by naming it biomass ethanol or bioethanol. Its chemical composition and characteristics are the same in both cases. Some ethanol is also produced by chemical synthesis. The main crops used to produce bioethanol are sugar cane, sugar beet, maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and oats. Cellulose and pulp waste liquor are also used to produce some ethanol.

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