Gene-edited Food to Hit Store Shelves

Food products using gene-editing technology may hit store shelves across the nation within this year amid lingering consumer concerns, after a notification system for such food began in October. The technology dramatically speeds up improvement of plants and animals, a process that has been conventionally conducted through breeding.

Critics are concerned because some of the gene-edited food products do not need to be screened for safety. Notifications to the state and indications on product labels are also voluntary. The technology allows a specific gene in DNA to be precisely clipped out to stop its functions and a gene from a different organism to be inserted. So far, tomatoes far richer in nutritional content and higher-yielding rice crops have been developed through the technology.

Masato Kinoshita, assistant professor at Kyoto University, has developed a breed of red sea bream with thicker flesh through gene editing. “Costs will drop if red sea bream become fleshier without increasing feed. Consumers will benefit through price drops,” Kinoshita said.

Natural sea bream, top, and a genetically modified version (Image Credit:  Kinki and Kyoto universities via Jiji Press)
Natural sea bream, top, and a genetically modified version (Image Credit: Kinki and Kyoto universities via Jiji Press)

The health ministry says it is mandatory to put genetically modified food through safety screenings under the food sanitation law. But gene-edited food using the technique to clip out genes is treated as an exception under the notification system. Developers are asked to notify such food products to the government. But this is not obligatory. This specific type of gene editing “is thought to pose the same degree of risk as conventional breeding,” a ministry official said. Meanwhile, food in which any gene was introduced must go through safety screenings.

The Consumer Affairs Agency has decided not to make it compulsory to indicate on product labels gene-edited food using the technique to clip out genes. It reached the conclusion because it is impossible to identify products using the technique scientifically. In addition, the agency finds it difficult to reach foreign companies that produce or sell products using the technique. But the agency is asking companies to voluntarily indicate any use of such technique on product labels, in response to requests from consumers.

Hiroko Yoshimori, coleader of civic group Non GM Seed Forum, is critical of government treatment of gene-edited food. “Unexpected things may happen. A wrong gene may be cut off mistakenly,” Yoshimori said. “I feel the system was launched hastily without enough consideration.”


Originally published in The Japan Times. Read original article here.