Continue Efforts to Obtain Public’s Understanding of Genome-edited Food

Japan’s first genome-edited food using technology that efficiently modifies genes will be a tomato to be sold as early as within this year. The government must not neglect efforts to gain the public’s understanding of genome-edited food.

The tomato variety was developed by the University of Tsukuba and a start-up called Sanatech Seed Co. This tomato reportedly contains several times the usual amount of a substance that is thought to prevent blood pressure from rising. Genome editing was used to destroy genes that restrict the production of this substance.

Such a genetic mutation is virtually indistinguishable from conventional selective breeding and can be sold after simply notifying the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. There is also no obligation for the product to be labeled as being genetically edited. Sanatech, however, intends to display such information on the product on a voluntary basis. This can be said to be an appropriate approach to ensure transparency.

Sanatech will sell the genome-edited tomato seeds to a limited number of farmers, who will then grow and ship the tomatoes. Therefore, it will likely take some more time before they are available in stores.

Last year, scientists from the United States and France won the Nobel Prize for developing the genome-editing technology. However, it is natural that many people in general are unfamiliar with the technology and some are concerned about its application to food.

In the future, there are expectations for its use in a broad range of products, such as fleshier fish and pollen-free cedar. The government should make efforts to thoroughly explain the safety of genome editing.

Genome-editing technology has a wide range of applications and great potential. It is hoped that the production of drought-resistant crops and high-yielding varieties will help deal with global warming and food crises. Japan also needs to promote the research and improve the technology.

With worries about it in mind, it becomes important to have people understand the benefits of genome-edited food as well.

Gene recombination technology, which first appeared in the 1990s, incorporates the genes of another organism. In Japan, the production of crops using gene recombination technology has been slow because many consumers wish to avoid eating them.

In light of these circumstances, the developers and producers need to use the sale of the tomato variety this time as an opportunity to explore how genome-edited food might be accepted. Rather than aiming for a hasty expansion of sales of such products, they should proceed step by step to build up a track record.

Humans have been improving breeding methods for crops and livestock throughout history. Genome-editing technology only increases the speed of improving breeds, and there will be no change in activities aiming for better agricultural crops.

Europe and the United States have been in the lead in basic research on genome-editing technology. In China, the public and private sectors are working together to promote the technology’s development. Japan needs to take a strategic approach so that it will not be left out of international competition.