From Bio Journal - March 2018

Trend: Safety screening begins for first Japanese GM tomato

On 22 December 2017, the GM foods, etc. specialist panel of the Food Safety Commission began safety screening of the first Japanese-developed tomato. This GM tomato is not eaten as a tomato but as "miraculin" that is produced using the tomato. Miraculin is found in the miracle fruit of the African bush-like plant Synsepalum dulcificium of the family Sapotaceae and is a taste-modifying protein that causes sour foods to be perceived as sweet. This effect is known as a sweet-modifying effect. Since adding this active substance to foods suppresses the consumption of sugars, the objective is the application of miraculin as a health food. It is said that it was decided to attempt to produce miraculin in tomatoes due to difficulties in cultivating the miracle fruit in Japan. The tomato is scheduled to be cultivated in a closed-system plant factory. It was developed by a Tsukuba University research team led by Professor Hiroshi Ezura, who has thus far engaged in the development of tomatoes suitable for plant factories and efficient manufacturing methods for miraculin.

Even though the tomato may be cultivated in a closed-system plant factory, as spread to the outside environment is possible, a biodiversity impact assessment is required. In November 2017, Tsukuba University jointly with Implanta Innovations Inc. applied for a biodiversity impact assessment for an isolated field, for which the screening process has begun. Implanta Innovations Inc. is a company that conducts plant research under commission and is related to the RIKEN research institute. Many species of the Solanaceae, which includes tomatoes, are cultivated in Japan and it seems that the impact assessment will be carried out cautiously as there is a strong possibility of crossbreeding with related agricultural products.

What are the issues for food safety? Firstly, the miraculin produced by tomato is unlikely to be the same as that produced by the miracle fruit. Secondly, since a tomato containing large amounts of miraculin will be created, it is clear that the concept of substantial equivalence cannot be applied. Thirdly, because the tomato will contain the inserted gene and large amounts of miraculin, there is a strong possibility that unforeseen changes may take place. For these reasons, unprecedentedly cautious screening is required.

GM gentian developed by Iwate University exempted from Cartagena laws

The GM early-flowering gentian developed by a team under Professor Nobuyuki Yoshikawa at the Faculty of Agriculture, Iwate University, was judged not to be liable to assessment at the biodiversity impact assessment panel at a meeting held on 22 November 2017. Using GM technology employing the apple latent spherical virus (ALSV) as the vector, the developed gentian has been made to flower in six months rather than the two years normally required, and the petals of the ezo gentian (Gentiana triflora var. japonica), which do not open, have been made to open. The reason for the exemption from the biodiversity impact assessment was give as the fact that neither the inserted gene nor the ALSV remain in the ultimately harvested product. The Iwate University research lab say they intend to use this technology to promote the flowering of apple blossom.

MAFF survey shows expansion of seed pollution

On 6 February 2018, MAFF released its survey on growth and crossbreeding of GM plants conducted in fiscal year 2016. (See BJ February 2017 for a previous report.) This is a report that MAFF publishes each year on the status of growth and crossbreeding of GM rapeseed and soy carried out at importing ports and their surroundings. To investigate crossbreeds with rapeseed (Brassica napus), samples of karashina (Brassica juncea) and native rapeseed (Brassica campestris L.) are sampled in the surroundings of 17 ports. Soy along with wild soy (Glycine soja) are also sampled from the surroundings of ten ports.

217 communities of rapeseed, from which 544 individual samples were taken, were confirmed growing at 15 of the 17 ports. As a result, a total of 142 individual samples from 92 communities of GM rapeseed were discovered at nine ports (Tomakomai, Kashima, Chiba, Yokohama, Nagoya, Yokkaichi, Kobe, Hakata and Shibushi. This rate of 26% positive findings is extremely high. In addition, 135 communities of karashina and 40 communities of native rapeseed were confirmed to be growing at 14 ports, but no crossbreeding was confirmed.

For soy, wild volunteers were confirmed at Hakata Port only, and of six individual samples from six communities, GM soy was discovered in half of the samples, three individual samples from three communities. Wild soy was confirmed in seven communities, 37 individual samples, from Kashima and Chiba Ports but crossbreeding was confirmed in none of these samples.

In this survey, seeds were taken for analysis from 88 samples of non-GM rapeseed and 56 samples of GM rapeseed. The result was that of 88 samples of the parent non-GM plant 12 of the 'child' seed samples were found to be GM seeds. Further, despite the fact that parent plants were glyphosate resistant, two seed samples were found to be glufosinate resistant and three seed samples were discovered to be both glyphosate and glyfosinate resistant. Moreover, when the parent plants were glufosinate resistant, one seed sample was found to be glyphosate resistant and three seed samples were discovered to be both glyphosate and glyfosinate resistant. It has thus become clear that the situation regarding crossbreeding has occurred much faster than foreseen.

* Glyphosate is the main ingredient of the herbicide Roundup and glyfosinate is the main ingredient of the herbicide Basta.

Table 1. Status of rapeseed seed contamination
Parent plant traitNo. of samples
Seed trait
Non-GMGlyphosate resistantGlyfosinate resistantDual resistance






Glyphosate resistant






Glyphosinate resistant












Italics indicate seeds resulting from crossbreeding

Is the "GMO-free" label to disappear?

The Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA) of Japan's investigative panel on the GM food labelling system is pushing forward with its work on the review of the labelling system. (See BJ November 2017) The discussions there are industry-oriented and it is feared that the existing labelling system will simply be continued as is. A new development, however, was seen at the eighth meeting of the panel on 31 January 2018. Thus far foods that have been labelled "GMO-free" or "GM soy free" have been used for foods which have an unintended contamination rate of 5% or less. When it was proposed to lower this to the detection limit (almost 0%), the proposal was approved. Unintended contamination rates of up to 5%, as they are now, will continue to be accepted, but the "GMO-free" label only will change. When the change occurs, it is possible that the "GMO-free" label will disappear. The reason is that Japan is importing large quantities of GM crops. However much effort is put into separating GM and non-GM crops, a small contamination will always occur and thus 0% contamination does not exist in reality. If 0% GM contamination does not exist, the "GMO-free" label will disappear. Since if the GMO-free label disappears it will become impossible for consumers to know about the existence of GM foods themselves, many consumer groups, including the Japan Consumers Union are opposed to the change in the 0% label.

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