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Genetic Modification Targets Taste and Health Benefits

July 26, 2000
Blue carnations, known as Moondust, developed by Suntory Ltd. (Suntory Ltd.)

Manufacturers of genetically modified organisms are increasingly switching the focus of their research and development strategy from benefitting producers to benefitting consumers. Developing GMOs that are resistant to disease or weeds is of course good news for farmers, but deep-rooted fears about GMOs among consumers have stopped these products from catching on in the marketplace. As a consequence, developers are employing a new strategy: making GMOs more attractive to consumers by using genetic modification to produce tastier and healthier foods. Faced with customer resistance to genetically modified foods, one manufacturer has turned its energies to developing a new variety of flower, the blue carnation.

Public Wary of GMOs
GMOs are biological products, generally food-related, that have had their genetic makeup altered in ways that make them grow faster or render them less susceptible to disease. Over 50 GMOs have already been developed in Japan, and the number worldwide has risen into the thousands. The importation of GMOs is proceeding apace in Japan, a major food importer, and the amount of GM food imported already is estimated at 5 million tons, the most in the world. The anti-GMO movement is as active as ever, however, and moves to force companies to label genetically modified products as such are gathering momentum. If this measure comes into force, many experts think that the public's reluctance to purchase GM foods will become even stronger.

Against this background, more and more GMO manufacturers are changing their development strategy. Originally, the development of GMOs was focused on boosting resistance to disease and otherwise improving agricultural products. Both in Japan and abroad this strategy led to such products as corn implanted with a gene that kills insects, soy beans and rape seed immune to the chemicals used to kill weeds, and tomatoes that stay fresh longer even in direct sunlight. Producers were naturally happy with these developments. However, worries that these so-called first-generation GMOs would adversely affect humans and the environment would not go away, and they had difficulty gaining a foothold among consumers.

Next-Generation GMOs
Manufacturers are therefore launching the development of second-generation GMOs designed to satisfy consumers. Japan Tobacco Inc. has developed rice that contains less of the protein glutelin, which causes the rice to lose its taste. In developing this new strain JT parted ways with previous research, which aimed mainly to produce rice with higher resistance to viruses. At a Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries research center, rice with improved health benefits is being developed. It has been genetically altered to give it the power to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood of people who eat it.

Some manufacturers, meanwhile, are directing their GMO research toward decorative items rather than foods. Beverage maker Suntory Ltd., which is working on developing new flower varieties, is one such firm. Suntory took the carnation, which does not naturally contain blue pigment, and inserted a gene for blue pigmentation to produce its "blue carnation." The flowers have proved popular with consumers since their 1997 introduction, and annual sales of the blue blossoms have now reached some 500,000 stems.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.