Japanese team set up to promote GM crops for biofuel (24/5/2007)

Team to promote GM crops for biofuel
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN (IHT/Asahi: May 23, 2007)

The agriculture ministry set up a study team Tuesday to spur commercialization of genetically modified crops for biofuel instead of food, which has been largely shunned by the public because of safety concerns.

By promoting the commercialization of GM crops for fuel, the ministry hopes to eventually gain the public's trust in using GM crops for human consumption.

Full-fledged commercial cultivation of GM crops started in other countries, such as the Untied States, about 10 years ago. Currently, more than 100 million hectares around the world are used to grow GM crops, more than 20 times the area of all farm plots in Japan.

Japanese universities and research institutes started growing GM crops outdoors on an experimental basis from the late 1990s. Most of these projects are still in the research and development stage.

Currently, 11 GM crops in Japan are approved under a national law based on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The crops, including rice plants, soybeans and corn, are mainly intended for human food and animal feed.

But none of the crops grown for human consumption has been commercialized.

Commercial farming has not yet been established in Japan for even inedible GM plants. For example, purple-blue carnations developed through gene modification, which were at one time commercially grown in Japan, are now raised overseas.

Because of strong safety concerns among the nation's consumers, the government has found it difficult to approve GM crops for practical use.

GM rice, which has been found to relieve hay fever symptoms, is handled as a medical product and must go through strict animal experiments before it can be commercialized.

To get around all of these hurdles, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries considered commercialization of GM fields for purposes other than human consumption.

The study team, comprising specialists and executives of consumer and producer groups, will draw up a medium-term strategy and a scheduled program for research, development and commercialization of GM crops.

It is expected to propose concrete plans to commercialize inedible GM crops in five to 10 years.

Crops under the plan include GM rice plants, which can yield more grain than regular rice plants for use as biofuel.

Other GM plants that can suck up underground toxic substances, such as heavy metals, will also be considered.

The ministry plans to hold public hearings on the safety and dangers of GM crops from autumn.

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