Media  Global Economy  2018.11.30

The US approaches Japan in regulations on GM foods - Mistake to think that the TPP lowers food safety standards.

The article was originally posted on Webronza on November 5, 2018
Food safety that had been the core of arguments against the TPP

Several years ago, Japan's public opinion had been split in two over the participation in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). People against the participation mostly argued that the US, which led the TPP negotiations, would shred and change for the worse what Japan had long protected, such as food safety, medical care system, agriculture and public works. And, many people who felt threatened by the US believed this argument.

Now that the TPP agreement has been concluded, it is obvious that most of these arguments had been groundless "TPP ghosts."

Due to confidentiality during negotiations, the Japanese government could only state that "such a situation would probably not occur" against the arguments, but after details of the TPP agreements were finalized and announced, the government refuted the arguments with confidence. Critics and university professors, who were no experts on trade issues, public policies and economic systems and had given groundless fake views, have now hidden themselves somewhere.

Above all, the US, which they felt threatened by, has withdrawn from the TPP out of fear that the TPP would lead to employment loss in the US. The US has gotten the sickness of "scared of the TPP and Japan."

The sickness of "scared of the US"

Regulations on genetically modified (GM) foods had been one aspect of such sickness.

Critics and university professors advocated that the US would force Japan to change its regulations on GM food and eat foods that are not safe, which most people of consumer groups also believed.

Having had the experience of negotiating with the US over regulations on GM foods, I had denied that such a situation would ever occur, but it had no effect. I even felt emptiness wondering why many people believe fake news created by people who are not experts and have no knowledge on food safety regulations.

I would like to take a little time and refer to the sentences I wrote to the general readers during controversies over participation in the TPP (slight addition made to pages 234-237 of "TPP Will Make Japanese Agriculture Strong" by Kazuhito Yamashita, Nikkei Publishing Inc. 2016 (first edition 2012)).

I will write about the sickness of "scared of the US." No one who has experience of being involved in multilateral trade negotiations in the past would advocate such a view. (Snip) Japan had not been particularly lost in the negotiations participated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan, which bore the brunt of trade negotiations. My actual impression is that they had responded with more sophisticated tactic to secure Japan's interests while taking pains or managing to save the pride of the US, which had repeated its claim in high spirits. (Snip)

I would like to mention my experience at the 2002 Meeting of APEC Trade Ministers regarding the labeling regulations on GM foods.

Some people argue that regulations on GM foods might be eased or removed by the TPP negotiations. First, there is no country that permits the distribution of GM foods whose safety has not been confirmed. What differs in each country's regulation is whether mandatory labeling is also required for GM foods whose safety has been certified or confirmed (Note: To my regret, in the first place, this fundamental and important point had not been understood by those fake experts and the general public).

The US takes up the position that such labeling is completely unnecessary. Japan requires mandatory GM food labeling only for products in which genetically modified deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or proteins of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) can be detected. In the case of soybeans, they are tofu or natto. (Note: Products that include no more than 5% of GMOs by weight are not subject to the labeling requirement). In contrast, the EU requires GM food labeling for not only products such as tofu but also products in which genetically modified DNA or proteins cannot be detected, such as soy sauce and soy oil, if they contain GMOs in the amount more than 0.9% (Note: GMOs no more than 0.9% require no labeling). Since accuracy or authenticity of labeling cannot be verified only by testing the products, there is no choice but to require separation and segregation of GMOs and non-GMOs in all stages of distribution and transactions. This involves enormous cost and virtually prohibits the distribution of GMOs whose safety has been confirmed, which is the reason for the US to oppose EU's labeling requirement.

This matter was discussed at the Codex Alimentarius Commission (jointly established by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)), but an international standard could not be agreed on due to the different positions of countries. At the 2002 Meeting of APEC Trade Ministers, the US proposed that all APEC trade ministers jointly send a letter to the EU commissioner in charge of trade by lodging a protest that EU's regulation is wrong. At the time, I had been responsible for the negotiations. Having judged that the US proposal might eventually affect Japan's regulations, I lobbied Australia and New Zealand, which have similar regulations as Japan, and ruined the US attempt. It is unthinkable that Japan's regulations would be changed through the TPP negotiations (Note: Concerns over GM foods are rising even in the US as seen in some fast food chains declaring cooking with non-GM foods and the Vermont General Assembly passing a law requiring labeling of GM foods in 2016.)

Adding to this, arguments that the US would unilaterally impose its system on Japan's medical care, local public works, etc. are dominant among people who oppose the TPP. But, unlike the bilateral consultations between Japan and the US, TPP negotiations are conducted multilaterally, making it possible for countries to cooperate with other countries on each issue. Since an agreement commits both sides to undertake obligations, what one side demands from the other will bounce back as its own obligation. Hence, even the US cannot impose its claims on other countries. (Snip)

Do people who have been affected by the sickness of "scared of the US" and advocate such arguments think that they should retreat within Japan because the US is scary if they go outside the country? Shouldn't the Japanese have more confidence in their own power?

Is the US changing its regulations to be similar to those of Japan?

In other words, at the time, the US, which did not require any mandatory labeling for GM foods that are virtually as safe and functional as their original foods or agricultural products (claim of "substantial equivalence"), and the EU, which required mandatory labeling for all GMOs and foods processed from GMOs (if they contain GMOs in the amount more than 0.9%), were at extremes regarding GM food labeling regulations.

Japan's position was in between the US and the EU. Taking soybeans for example, mandatory labeling is required for natto and tofu in which genetically modified DNA or proteins can be detected, while labeling is not required for oil and soy sauce in which genetically modified DNA or proteins cannot be detected due to high-level processing (While foods that include no more than 5% of GMOs by weight have not been subject to mandatory labeling, this year regulations are proposed to be tightened towards requiring mandatory labeling for all foods in which genetically modified DNA or proteins can be detected (in the slightest amount). The scope of foods subject to mandatory labeling has been enlarged, and regulations have become stricter than those of the EU in some respects.)

However, in 2016 the US enacted a law requiring labeling for GM foods (commonly called the "Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law") reflecting grassroots movement demanding labeling in Vermont and other states, and the law was signed by President Obama in July of the same year. Pursuant to this law, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently considering what kind of foods require labeling based on over 14,000 public comments received and expresses hope to finalize its decision by December 1.

The first thing worth noting is that the law does not use the word genetically modified organism (GMO) but instead uses the word "bioengineered food" which seems to have a broader meaning. "Bioengineered food" is defined as a food "(1) that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant DNA techniques; and (2) for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature." In other words, bioengineered food not only includes the existing GMOs and GM foods, but also may formally include food produced using genome editing. The key point would be whether "genetic material that has been modified" exists or not.

Currently, the USDA proposes the following three options for exemption of mandatory labeling.

1. Foods in which an ingredient contains a bioengineered substance that is inadvertent or technically unavoidable, and accounts for no more than 5% of that ingredient by weight.

2. Foods in which an ingredient contains a bioengineered substance that is inadvertent or technically unavoidable, and accounts for no more than 0.9% of that ingredient by weight.

3. Foods containing ingredients known to be bioengineered as long as the total amount of all bioengineered ingredients used in the product is not greater than 5% of the total weight of the product.

Here, it is assumed that bioengineered substance exists. Unlike the EU, which requires labeling also for soy sauce and oil that do not contain bioengineered substance, USDA identifies these products to be exempted from regulations as Japan has. In other words, US regulations on GM foods is about to become almost the same as that of Japan. The opposite situation of what anti-TPP advocates, affected by the sickness of "scared of the US," had argued is currently underway in the US.

In my next report, I wish to write about foods produced using genome editing that will likely come next after GM foods.

(This article was translated from the Japanese transcript of Dr. Yamashita's column in "Webronza" on November 5, 2018.)