Japan Set to Approve 1st Genome-edited Food for Market

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A University of Tsukuba researcher harvests genome-edited tomatoes in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, in March 2018.

A tomato variety developed by a Tokyo-based start-up is likely to become the first genome-edited food on supermarket shelves in Japan.

A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry expert panel will meet to discuss the issue this month. The company is expected to apply for government registration for the sale and distribution of genome-edited foods depending on the outcome of the expert panel meeting.

It is expected to be about a year or two before the tomatoes are available on the market even if approved because of the need to develop supply chains and other factors.

Current genome-editing technologies are more efficient than ever before, making it possible to modify genes as if editing sentences on a word-processor.

Technological advances have been made in life science studies and the development of medicines. According to researchers, breed improvements of agricultural products, which usually take 10 years or longer, can be done in only a few years with the technology.

The genome-edited tomato was jointly developed by Sanatech Seed Co., a University of Tsukuba spinoff company, and the university.

The company, which has received advice from the ministry, will submit the data it has collected to the expert panel.

Other companies have been making similar preparations with the ministry, but this is the first time that a sufficient amount of data has been prepared. It is highly likely that the company’s genome-edited tomato meets the conditions to be approved for commercialization, according to sources.

Compared to conventional varieties, the genome-edited tomato is richer in gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which can prevent high blood pressure.

Conventional tomatoes have a gene that limits GABA levels. The company used genome editing technology to destroy part of this gene, to increase the amount of GABA in the new variety.

Foods produced with genome-editing technologies can be made by introducing a foreign gene or by breaking a specific gene. In October last year, the ministry determined that editing technologies in which genes are broken are no different from those developed by conventional methods to improve breeds, and it established a registration system for such genome-edited foods.

When foreign genes are inserted into a food variety, the products are regarded as genetically modified foods, which need to be screened for safety under the Food Sanitation Law.

According to the ministry and other sources, there are eight kinds of genetically modified foods approved for commercial distribution in Japan, including corn that is resistant to harmful insects and soy that is resistant to specific chemical herbicides.

No genome-edited foods have yet been approved for sale in Japan.

Based on data to be submitted by the company, the expert panel will examine whether foreign genes were inserted into the tomato variety and whether it contains any allergy-causing substances, among other safety issues.

The ministry plans to accept the application from the company if the panel determines that there are no problems.

A new method of genome editing was invented in 2012, making it easier to genetically modify and improve breeds. The two American and French scientists who invented the method are to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year.