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Jan. 4, 2019

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Jan. 4, 2019
By Chika Ishikawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

A research and development race to develop new plant and livestock cultivars by altering target genetic information using genome-editing technology (see below) has begun, with China and the United States the major players. This is a consequence of the emergence of new technology that enables simple and cheap genome editing in 2012.

The government has been hurrying to formulate rules on genome editing, and is apparently keen to move toward promoting the development of genome-editing technology. But Japan lacks the industry and human resources to gain a foothold in international competition. To catch up, Japan should seek to utilize its genetic resources and exploit its competitive advantage in terms of quality.

“They [genome-editing methods] open the field to smaller companies. Now, it is already in use by thousands of state laboratories,” said Associate Prof. Agnes Ricroch of French higher education institute AgroParisTech, speaking about the recent explosive spread of genome editing at a meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in June last year.

Until recently, cultivar improvement with the genetic engineering of crops and livestock was enormously expensive, and it was only carried out by large globally known corporations. For example, the cultivars created by genetic modification (GM) in the 1990s utilized a special method to insert genes from other species into the target species to provide it with novel characteristics. It is said to have cost roughly ¥4 billion for crops with new features to reach the market after going through such processes as safety checks.

CRISPR-Cas9 spurs competition

However, since the development of the simple genome-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 in 2012, the number of players in this sphere has increased dramatically. This was due to a widespread expectation that if genome editing was limited to mutations that could occur naturally, there would be no need for the kinds of safety experiments that are required for GM products. Some varieties that have already been developed include mushrooms that are resistant to discoloration and pigs that have immunity to certain viruses.

While there is a movement toward regulating genome-edited crops in Europe, major U.S. and Chinese seed and seedling companies are engaged in full-scale efforts for commercialization. In 2016, the major U.S. seed producer DuPont Pioneer announced that it would seek to commercialize a corn cultivar within five years.

Additionally, Chinese state-owned China National Chemical Corp. acquired Syngenta of Switzerland, the world’s leading agrochemical producer, in 2017. It has since built its development headquarters for genome editing technology in Beijing and has increased its focus on crop development. Genome-edited crops are likely to appear on dinner tables in the not too distant future.

In the context of global food scarcity and climate change, there are also efforts to gain an edge on cultivar improvement by using biotechnology. In January last year, U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans that “we are streamlining regulations that have blocked cutting-edge biotechnology.”

The Chinese government has also placed “genetic improvement in agriculture” as a high-priority item in its scientific and technological innovation strategy, and has started to strongly focus on biotechnology development. Similarly, the South Korean government has launched biotechnology projects in an industry-government-academic cooperative push.

Japan in a tough situation

Although the Japanese government began work on a new biotechnology strategy in late 2017, the situation is already tough. “The industry has not developed well over the past 20 years, and there are very few researchers in the field,” said National Institute of Health Sciences Director Chikako Uneyama, an expert on biotechnology.

The government outlined its first biotechnology strategy in 2002, and set a target for the field to grow into a ¥24.2 trillion industry by 2010. Yet in reality, the industry is estimated to have reached only about 10 percent of that scale. The government also aimed to nurture an industry using GM products, but committed a string of errors regarding the designation of GM products as food. Due to this inconsistent posture, which failed to unambiguously promote GM products, the only thing that has grown is consumer distrust.

Nearly 20 years have now passed without a clear strategy. The sobering reality is that Japan has only succeeded in becoming one of the world’s leading importers of GM crops. According to the Council for Biotechnology Information Japan, which is composed of seed and seedling producers and other companies, Japanese imports of GM crops reached an estimated 18.88 million tons in 2017. These imports included corn and soybeans for use in processed foods. This boosts growth in overseas industries and continues to widen the gap in financial and technical strength between overseas and domestic companies.

Researchers warn that recently, even Japanese efforts to conduct genome editing in rice cultivars “seem to have been surpassed by China.”

Biotechnology sector’s reputation for safety an area of strength

In June, the government instructed ministries and agencies to speed up formulating genetic editing rules, including regulations for genome editing in crops.

The Environment Ministry and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry have come up with a plan to exclude some genome-edited crops from their regulations. Yet both ministries had discussed this policy only a few times before the announcement. This indicated that discussions had already been determined before they began.

Even if scientists and relevant government officials were to unilaterally emphasize the safety and suitability of the technology, this approach risks inflaming consumer distrust once again. What is important is not to forestall discussions, but to gain consumer understanding and support.

If Japan embarks on a plan to enter the international stage, it would be preferable to devise a strategy that plays to Japan’s own strengths. For example, it would be useless for Japan to directly challenge agricultural superpowers like the United States or China by creating crops for large-scale agriculture, such as pest-resistant soybeans. Instead, there is a real opportunity in pursuing the quality desired by consumers.

Japan boasts the world’s fifth-largest stocks of plant genetic resources (see below). The combination of these abundant genetic resources with genome-editing techniques could lead to the development of new cultivars. The Japanese reputation for food safety and taste is also a built-in strength.

Currently, high value-added products such as tomatoes enriched with a blood-pressure-suppressing substance and red sea bream that grow with more meat are being developed domestically. “We hope to find a means to export strawberries and other high value-added products and seeds that are popular overseas,” said Director Hideharu Anazawa of the Japan Bioindustry Association, which promotes biotechnology industries in Japan.

■ Genome-editing technology

A technique that allows scientists to freely rewrite a section of an organism’s genome in a way that is analogous to editing a sentence. As with genetic modification technology, genes may be introduced from other species, or small changes to existing genes may deactivate the gene or provide it with new functionalities.

■ Plant genetic resources

The National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, has stored about 220,000 seeds and other items since the Meiji era. The United States, which holds the world’s largest collection of plant genetic resources, has about 500,000 items, while China comes second with 390,000 items. Many countries prohibit bringing genetic resources out of their countries of origin without permission under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which came into force in 1993.Speech

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