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Japan plans tighter rules on GMO imports for feed

(Friday, Oct. 11, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Reuters: Japan, one of the world's biggest grain importers, is set to tighten regulations on genetically modified organisms (GMO), with plans to ban the import and sale of unapproved biotech crops for use in livestock feed.

Currently Japan's Agriculture Ministry, responsible for ensuring the safety of animal feed, asks GMO suppliers to voluntarily undergo its safety assessments.

But faced with criticism that lax regulations have led to the use of unapproved GM ingredients in feed, the ministry plans to make the assessment mandatory next April under the feed safety law.

Under the new regulations, the ministry will test samples from grain cargoes at its laboratories nationwide to weed out unapproved GM varieties.

"We will order importers to destroy or return cargoes to originating countries (if we discover) unapproved GMOs," a ministry official said.

The Agriculture Ministry's move follows similar steps taken last year by Japan's Health Ministry, the food safety authority, which has banned imports of foods containing unapproved GMOs.

But unlike the Health Ministry, which has adopted a zero tolerance policy on imports of unapproved GMOs, the Agriculture Ministry is considering allowing up to one percent of unapproved GMOs in feed grains, recognising that accidental contamination of grains can occur in production or distribution.

The one-percent rule will only be applied, however, to unapproved GMO varieties whose safety has already been confirmed by the originating country under testing standards set by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the ministry official said. Genetically modified crops contain a gene from another organism, making plants resistant to certain herbicides or giving them the ability to produce their own toxin to kill pests. Critics say not enough research has been done to ensure the new technology is safe for the environment and public health.

Japan started importing GM crops in 1996 as farmers in the United States began adopting the technology.

So far the Agriculture Ministry has approved 32 GM varieties of five crops - corn, soybeans, rapeseed, cotton and sugar beet - for import and sale under its feed safety guidelines.

TRADE IMPACT SEEN LIMITED Japanese traders do not expect the new GMO regulations will have a major impact on their grain imports from the United States, the world's biggest producer of GM crops.

They said the U.S. grain industry voluntarily restrained production of GM varieties lacking approval from Japan, their biggest export market, after the discovery of banned StarLink biotech corn in food and animal feed sparked massive product recalls in Japan two years ago.

At that time StarLink - GM corn made by Franco-German pharmaceutical group Aventis SA - was approved for animal feed but not for human consumption in the United States. In Japan it was not approved even for feed.

The Starlink discovery prompted Japan to cut purchases of U.S. corn sharply, with importers scrambling to find other supply sources. Japanese traders resumed buying U.S. corn after U.S. farmers were banned from planting StarLink corn.

"After learning bitter lessons from the StarLink issue, the U.S. grain industry has imposed self-restraint on planting of GM varieties until they are approved in Japan," one trader said.

In the latest case, the U.S. grain industry earlier this year halted plans to grow GM corn made by Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of U.S. chemical firm Dow Chemical Co, because the Japanese government had not approved the variety.

An official at Dow Chemical's Japanese unit said U.S. farmers would start growing the GM corn next year, because Japan approved the variety for feed use in May and for food use in June.

Japan imports roughly 16 million tonnes of corn annually, of which 12 million tonnes are for feed and the rest are for food and other uses. The United States is the dominant supplier, representing more than 90 percent of Japan's total corn imports.