In a decision among the first of its kind, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare have declared that gene-edited foodstuffs are safe for consumption. As such, they can be sold without a safety evaluation but only after the gene-editing techniques meet set criteria.
“There is little difference between traditional breeding methods and gene editing in terms of safety,” reports panel chair Hirohito Sone, an endocrinologist from Niigata University.
The only other country to have limited regulation on gene-edited food so far has been the United States. In stark contrast to the United States’ decision, the European Union ruled that gene-edited foods and crops must adhere to the lengthy process administered to genetically modified crops in the same year.
Japan made the decision on March 18 after an advisory panel ruled in the method’s favor. This decision has the potential to shake up how other nations view genetically edited food. As of now, the regulation of these foods varies from country to country and many are hesitant to accept genetically modified foods in any form.
Regardless, GMOs have still worked their way onto American grocer’s shelves. It’s estimated that almost 94% of soybean products were the result of genetic modification by 2014.
Genetically modified foods, often called GMOs, differ from gene-edited foods. While GMOs are the result of transplanting one gene from an organism into another, gene-editing occurs when scientists control the present genes within a single organism. Gene-edited foods rely on a high-tech process, like CRISPR, where certain genes are disabled or otherwise altered to change the performance of the food.
Genetically modified foods are another source of opposition to policy-makers. The primary argument against genetically modified foods is that they can have unforeseen effects on the body. Others claim that genetically modified foods have the potential to create more nutritious, longer lasting food.
This kind of innovation is needed in a world becoming more laden with calories. According to recent research, desserts and entrees have only increased in caloric content since 1986.
And while it’s okay to indulge in a burger and fries every once in a while, people are doing it more often. Americans eat an estimated 14 billion burgers each year, making it one of the most popular foods in the country. Should separate components of this food become more nutritious through gene-editing, a single burger has the potential to deliver significant dietary benefits.
The United States might be the first country to bring about this nutritional change. Calyxt, a Minnesota-based company, will be the first company to sell gene-edited food in the country through their innovative soybean product.
Through gene-editing, they have managed to create a soybean oil with zero trans fats and fewer saturated fats than its non-edited counterpart. Though the soybean oil is not yet available for widespread consumption, the company has begun selling its product to local Minnesotan restaurants.
“Right now the food industry solves all its problems through processing or chemistry,” claims Calyxt chief science officer Dan Voytas. “We’d like to do it through genetics and gene-editing. We’d like a piece of Wonder Bread to meet all your daily requirements of fiber.”
Of course, these foods aren’t a cure-all; the 47% of adults with periodontal disease will still have to clean the bacteria from food from their teeth and gums; we won’t be able to get the nutritional content we need a five-ounce serving of red wine. But with more innovation, foods like these have the potential to help people everywhere engage in a more healthy diet.
So far, only a draft of the decision on gene-edited food products have been released to the Japanese public. More recommendations are expected to be heard before a final policy is announced later this year.
While genetically modified foods require a specific label in Japan, it is not yet known if gene-edited foods will follow suit.