Japanese Decision On Gene Editing Provides Support For Plant Breeding Innovations

A recent signal from the Japanese government that it will not consider organisms produced using gene editing as genetic modification provides reassurance for continued market access for U.S. farmers to one of the largest and most loyal international markets.

“Innovation in the agriculture sector is advancing rapidly,” said Allison Nepveux, U.S. Grains Council (USGC) manager of trade policy and lead on innovation and sustainability issues. “These advances create unprecedented opportunities for agricultural productivity, but also create potential policy changes in overseas markets.”

Advances in gene editing create opportunities for researchers to support human, plant, animal and environmental health by improving yields, creating resistance to diseases and much more.

In the most basic sense, this plant breeding innovation works as a quick edit to an organism’s DNA – think the cut, copy or paste function but on a microscopic level. Specific enzymes can be used to induce these changes but are often removed from the organism’s genome when the change is finalized. Many of these alterations could have been achieved through traditional plant breeding, but gene editing isolates and accelerates the change, saving significant time and money.

Governments around the world are currently assessing whether these gene-edited products will be regulated under existing frameworks for products produced with genetic modification, through existing frameworks for conventional products, or some other variation.

In Japan, the Ministry of Environment released its final policy on environmental safety on Feb. 8, 2019. According to the decision, creating food items using genome editing is not considered genetic modification, under the conditions that any DNA from enzymes required to edit the target organism are not left within the genome and the resulting gene edits could have also occurred naturally. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced a nearly identical assessment with regard to food safety on March 27, 2019. Other government ministries are still making their determinations on how to regulate this technology.

The decision bears particular importance as food made from crops or other products produced through gene editing will not have to undergo the additional regulatory requirements for food products classified as genetically modified. The Japanese decision also supports global efforts to maintain functional regulatory systems in overseas markets that are science-based, transparent and predictable – key aspects of maintaining market access for U.S. corn and co-products.

The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries will now set the standards for feed safety assessments, followed by a labeling policy determined by the Consumer Affairs Agency. The Council and its partners will continue to monitor this regulatory framework as it is created and adopted.

“There is clear need for continued sharing of resources and cooperation as these regulatory policies are fully implemented,” Nepveux said. “These positive signals from the Japanese government incentivize technology firms to invest in research and development that protects the long-term global competitiveness of U.S. agriculture.”

Read more from USDA about Japan’s recent gene editing decisions.