Japan Suspends Approval of Bt Crops
Nature 24 June 1999

Japan tightens rules on GM crops to protect the environment

[TOKYO] Japan is to tighten its safety regulations on genetically modified
crops following the publication last month of research suggesting that
pollen from Bt corn could harm the larvae of monarch butterflies (see
Nature 399, 214; 1999).

The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF)
announced last week that it will suspend approval of Bt crops for
agricultural purposes until its committee on genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) has established criteria for evaluating the safety of such crops.

Japan has already approved the importation of six types of Bt corn for use
as foodstuffs, but the commercial planting of seed produced by US
companies, such as Monsanto, has not yet been approved.

Yutaka Tabei of the ministry's safety evaluation division says the harmful
effect of Bt toxins on non-target insects was not entirely unexpected. "The
results were not surprising, given that the butterfly larvae were fed
leaves dusted with pollen from Bt corn," he says. "But we must carry out
further studies -- including those on the spread of pollen -- to assess any
potential impact such crops may have in the natural environment."

There is a strong emphasis on the concept of 'substantial equivalence',
under which GM foods are compared with analogous conventional foods in
terms of characteristics such as toxicity and nutritional qualities.At
present, the GMO committee predicts the potential ecological impact of Bt
crops to be "negligible" in the natural environment. But it is emphasizing
the importance of carrying out safety tests by simulating various
environmental conditions.

The committee plans to release revised safety evaluation protocols by the
end of this year, basing its final decision on safety studies carried out
by Japanese institutions.

The move represents the first major step by the government to review the
potential ecological risks of GM crops. Until the launch of a research
project in April to examine the long-term effects of herbicide- and
insect-tolerant crops on ecology and agricultural practices (see Nature
398, 655; 1999), the main safety concern about GM foods had focused on the
risk to health.

Debates about GMOs had therefore centred on the labelling of products that
contain genetically modified ingredients. Such foods are currently not
labelled in Japan, and MAFF is expected to decide by the end of the year
whether to require products containing GMOs to be labelled as such (see
Nature 395, 628; 1998).

Japan's regulations on GMOs, which are overseen by the Ministry of Health
and Welfare for food safety and by MAFF for field use, are based on
guidelines set out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development (OECD).

Although MAFF requires farm-scale trials of GM crops, critics say these are
inadequate, as its safety evaluation protocols overlook proper assessments
for long-term and 'unexpected' risks to genetic diversity.

"Although MAFF's safety evaluation of Bt corn requires tests on its impact
on non-target species such as mice and ladybirds, it excludes tests on
butterflies by ruling out the possibility of pollen depositing on other
plant species," says Setsuko Yasuda, director-general of Japan's Consumers'

Many see MAFF's decision to review its safety protocols as a step towards
gaining public support for developments of GM technology in Japan. Japan
Tobacco are planning to develop GM rice, and other companies are embarking
on research into GM trees for high pulp yield and insect-tolerant GM flowers.