From Bio Journal - April 2021

Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to promote RNA pesticides

It now looks as if new genetically modified pesticides are about to appear. As with the novel coronavirus vaccines, these are RNA agrochemicals that apply RNAi (RNA interference) to the production of agrochemicals that work by injecting genetic material into plants and insects to manipulate genes inside cells. RNAi is a technique that destroys specific genes, and although potatoes developed in this way have been approved and grown in the United States, direct application of genetic material into the environment, as with pesticides, has not previously been carried out.

At the end of last year, MAFF established the Green Food System Strategy Headquarters and presented a plan in which the promotion of the use of RNA pesticides was included. The strategy contains an aim to increase organic farming to up to 25% of all agriculture. Increasing the share of organic agriculture in Japan from the current level of about 0.2% to 25% appears to be a change in MAFF policy, but the organic farming indicated here is completely different from the image of organic farming that has been generally held up to now.

MAFF states in its strategy that from production to consumption, "through the establishment of a new technological system and further creative innovation, we will achieve compatibility between improved productivity and sustainability in our country's food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries through innovation." The point here is the word "innovation," which appears twice in the sentence. This includes a turn toward high-tech, such as smart agriculture using AI, the development of crops using genetic manipulation, such as genome editing, and the promotion of agrochemicals applying genetic manipulation, i.e. RNA agrochemicals. The strategy is, therefore, for large distributors, such as supermarkets, to handle crops produced by large-scale corporate, high-tech agriculture, and also includes the production of export crops.

At the beginning of last year, MAFF tentatively adopted a policy that "genome-edited crops are incompatible with organic farming," (See BJ January 2020) but this has not been finally confirmed. It is possible that the "Green Food System Strategy" was planned with this notion as a background.

Immediate clinical trials suddenly become routine in vaccine development

The coronavirus has mutated to variant forms, with infections beginning to spread again in Europe and elsewhere, as well as in Japan. Representative is a variant discovered in the UK, described by PM Johnson as being "70% more virulent."

This infection, brought about by the appearance of a succession of mutants, including the UK one, constitutes a new phase of infection. The variants have been discovered one after the other in Japan and infection is expected to spread. Currently, in addition to the UK variant, there are strains that have undergone unique changes in their respective regions, such as South Africa, Brazil, and the US. Of these, the South African and Brazilian variants are likely to have serious impacts. The vaccines developed thus far produce antibodies known as neutralizing antibodies that are effective against viruses, but which are not effective in the case of these two variants. This means that people who have been infected once may be re-infected, making it difficult to see a way forward.

Now, manufacturers are developing vaccines to fight the South African strain. The US Moderna, Inc., which developed an mRNA vaccine against the original virus, announced on February 24 that it had provided a test vaccine effective against the South African strain to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Normally, vaccines and other pharmaceuticals are tested in humans after basic research and animal experiments have been duly conducted. In the case of the coronavirus vaccine, however, urgent need has led to the creation of a mechanism where basic research, animal testing, and clinical testing are conducted simultaneously. Moderna, Inc.'s South African vaccine is now suddenly undergoing clinical trials. There is a danger that this will become the "new normal" common practice in the development of drugs and vaccines.

Japanese pharmaceutical companies dependent on novel coronavirus vaccine

As the novel coronavirus spreads, fewer people are going to the hospital and pharmaceutical sales have dropped significantly. Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. being forced to sell assets related to four antidiabetic drugs sold in Japan on February 26 is symbolic. Takeda is placing its hopes on Moderna, Inc.'s coronavirus vaccine, which the company manufactures and sells. It seems that this dependence of Japanese pharmaceutical companies on vaccines will continue to grow. On March 4, JCR Pharmaceuticals announced the establishment of a new vaccine manufacturing plant for production of the AstraZeneca KK coronavirus vaccine in Kobe Science Park in Nishi Ward, Kobe. The plant is scheduled to go into operation in 2023, which is still a long way off, but is expected to produce variant vaccines as well as vaccines for new infections.

Moves to approve genome-edited fish accelerate

MHLW has been stepping up efforts to approve genome-edited fish by holding a series of expert panel meetings of the ministry's Food Sanitation Council, which effectively determines the approval of genetically modified and genome-edited foods, on February 10, and March 8 and 17 (See BJ March 2021). This is seen as a move to approve the "fleshy (fast-growing) red sea bream" developed by Kyoto University and Kinki University. Following the high-GABA tomato (See BJ January 2021), the government has begun to move toward commercialization of the fleshy red sea bream.

Petition to demand labeling of genome-edited crop seeds and seedlings

On March 1, the NO! Genetically Modified Food Campaign and other citizens' organizations launched a petition to call for the labeling of genome-edited food seeds and seedlings. Free distribution of Sanatech Seed's high-GABA tomato seedlings (See BJ January 2021) is about to begin, and, as things stand, they may be cultivated and distributed in the same way as ordinary tomatoes. In the current situation, farmers who do not want to grow genome-edited crops, businesses who do not want to use raw materials produced from genome-edited crops, and consumers who do not want to eat genome-edited food will be deprived of their right to choose.

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(English Index)