In a move that could trigger a major trade dispute with the United States, Japan bowed to growing pressure from consumer groups and will mandate labeling of some genetically modified (GM) foods by April 2001.
Japan is the largest importer of US food products, worth about $10 billion last year. "The potentially huge market for some very big companies in the US is being threatened," says John Neuffer, senior research fellow at Mitsui Marine Research Institute in Tokyo.
Last year, American corn made up 87 percent of Japan's corn imports of 14.7 million tons, while US soybeans made up 77 percent of its soybean imports of about 5 million tons. More than half of all US soybeans, and about one-third of US corn crops, are genetically modified.
The Agriculture Ministry's Aug. 10 proposal initially requires labeling for just 28 food items that contain detectable genetically modified organisms (GMOs) - mostly soybean products that nevertheless have a significant presence in the Japanese diet.
Consumer groups say the proposal is a weak compromise, the result of pressure on the government from businesses and Washington. It is "very insufficient," says Setsuko Yasuda at the Japanese Consumer Union. Ms. Yasuda and others are concerned about the potential for GM foods' unknown and unpredictable effects on people and the environment.
More than 90 percent of those surveyed in 1997 by the state-funded Society for Techno-innovation of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, want safety information on GM foods, and 72 percent seek information on their impact on the environment.
"More and more Japanese consumers have become aware of food safety," says Ayako Ueno of the Association to Preserve the Earth. Despite the country's recession, that awareness has boosted her group's membership and sales, Ms. Ueno says. They sell mainly organic crops, most of which are produced in Japan.
"Japan depends too much on imported foods, so we should increase domestic production," Ueno adds. Many Japanese housewives say they don't mind spending more on food, as long as it is safe.
Bungo Yoshida, chairman of a soybean-wholesaler union, says he cannot understand why GM foods that both the US and Japanese governments have already confirmed as safe should require labeling. "We have been eating tofu and other products with GMOs for three years. I personally think this is safe," he says.
Major supermarkets, however, have begun to avoid carrying tofu with GMOs, and some have already made a point of labeling their products to show they are GMO-free.
Kazuko Shinozaki, senior researcher on genetically modified plants at a state-funded research institute in Tsukuba, agrees mandatory labeling should ease consumers' apprehension. Despite the international wrangling over GM foods, "I expect we will rely more on genetically engineered products," she says. Yasuda of the Consumer Union repeats a concern that large corporations who control much of the GM technology lack the necessary perspective toward the food needs of developing countries. "The only thing they care about is profit," she says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society