The Japanese government faces a stiff challenge in attempting to persuade a highly GM-averse population to embrace genetically modified food. But, writes Michael Fitzpatrick, it is a challenge that has to be addressed if Japan is to meet its GM commitments to the WTO, and cope with a trade imbalance that requires the country to import 40% of the food it consumes.

Japanese consumers are perhaps the most anti-GM minded in the world, creating a problem for the Japanese government, which has to meet pledges to the WTO to buy GMOs while placating a steadfastly sceptical public about the benefits and safety of GM food.

The headache is compounded by the fact that Japan imports as much as 40% of the food it consumes. Furthermore, many Japanese staples – like soybeans and corn – are areas where there has been the greatest GM development. But Japanese food makers say they don’t want the genetically modified variants and are taking pains to source unmodified supplies, an understandable stance given the strength of consumer opposition to GM food in Japan.

A recent survey of consumer attitudes to genetically modified foods by a quasi government body STAFF (Society for Techno-innovation of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) showed that only 9% of those polled had a good image of GM food while 51% declared themselves opposed to GM foods. A resounding 61% said they were reluctant to eat it at all.

But it is not all gloom for government officials charged with persuading the public about the safety and benefits of GM food. STAFF’s latest report shows a fall in the number of those unwilling even to consider eating GM food, from the massive 80% it recorded in a similar poll in 2003.

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“The number of people who feel unsafe about GM products has been decreasing,” says STAFF’s Tetsuya Hirano. “Our consumer attitude study showed that only a few people disagree with GM products which bring health benefits to consumers and development of those commercial medical GM products that are underway.”

Much of Japanese consumer resistance to GM crops is a result of Tokyo’s failure to assure people over past food scares, such as BSE and bird flu, says Hirano.

Farmers too have come out strongly against GMOs while a small but vocal group of anti-GM consumer organisations have been effective in stirring anti-GM sentiment in the population, which is also reflected in the sceptical view taken over GM by the media.

Interestingly, many of these same consumer groups have sympathy with Tokyo though they accuse the government of forcing GM products on consumers and farmers who plainly do not want them.

Natsuko Kumasawa, who works for the organic food advocacy group Japan Offspring Fund, says Tokyo is under too much pressure from outside Japan to push a GM agenda.

“Japan is pressurised by the US to buy its food to address our colossal trade imbalance,” Kumasawa says. “Most Japanese consumers do not want to eat GM food, but unless our government can show scientific evidence that GM food is unsafe, Japan can’t reject GM food. If Japan rejects American GM crops, the US will file suit with the WTO.”

So, timid about developing any biotechnology itself – there is only one domestically-developed GM rice crop that has now reached trial stage – Japan has embraced foreign developed crops from the likes of Monsanto, which are now grown all across the archipelago.  So far, Japan has approved 75 biotechnology events for food, 59 for feed and 55 for planting, all of which must come with internationally recognised certificates of safety, and all grown from imported GM seeds for domestic cultivation.

Bowing to vast consumer pressure, mandatory labelling for certain GM food has been conducted in Japan since 2001. However, many foods, such as soy sauce, oil and animal feed, are excluded from mandatory labelling. Bread made from a GM enzyme won’t be labelled either. “It is very regrettable that consumers do not have the right to choose,” says Kumasawa. “Consumers can’t choose non-GM food because of this incomplete labelling scheme.”

Naturally, irregularities in the labelling law have irked some consumers and added to a sense of conspiracy that the Government is attempting to hide facts from consumers. Tales in the press of cover-ups over GM seed spills and contaminations have not helped the cause of GM foods in Japan either.

The food industry, too, is extremely reluctant even to attempt to prepare biotech products for market.  Fearing a consumer backlash, retailers -particularly large supermarket chains – demand the food industry supply non-biotech foods, even for products that do not have to be labelled. This in turn results in procurement of non-biotech raw ingredients by importers.

STAFF says its doing what it can to educate the population about the benefits of GM, organising seminars and symposia, publishing information brochures and launching a website, though clearly these methods are having little impact on the media where, according to the STAFF survey, shoppers get most of their information on GM foods.

But Hirano is convinced that eventually Japan will get the message that GM foods will benefit everybody: “Once consumers discover there are certain benefits such as improved health through consuming GMOs then we will get wider acceptance. It’s all a matter of getting information to the consumer and having these issues properly debated in public. We need to change our society into one where people feel familiar with GMO. I, personally, consider Japanese consumers will accept GM products in the end. It’s just a matter of time.”