by Suvendrini Kakuchi

Tokyo, 14 Oct 99 (IPS) -- The humble soybean, a staple in the Japanese diet, is at the centre of a ferocious debate on the safety of genetically modified (GM) food and is turning out to be the catalyst for a much-needed attitude change in Japan.

As more and more people join a movement to reject GM soy beans, mostly imports from the United States, activists say Japanese companies are beginning to acknowledge consumer needs over business profits.

A telling illustration of this important change is the setting up of separate sections at supermarkets, despite not being required by government, that segregates soy products, such as tofu and sauces, made with imported GM soybeans, and those that claim to use only the local variety.

It is an important development for Japan's consumer organizations that have spearheaded opposition to imports of bio-engineered foods and have been calling for better food safety and increased food self-sufficiency in Japan.

Yoko Tomiyama, head of Consumers Union of Japan (CUJ) a staunch opponent of GM foods, says Japan may be the second richest country in the world, but the crisis over soybeans has forced a growing number of Japanese to realize how heavily dependent they are on foreign countries for their food.

"We welcome the GM food product crisis. It is time that more Japanese began to think about how precarious their situation has become," she explained.

A letter, citing scientific data that support potential health and environmental hazards of GMOs, was sent by CUJ last week to American farmers, urging them to segregate GM and non-GM products exported to Japan.

Japan is the world's largest food importer. American soybeans, most of them genetically modified, make up more than ninety percent of local consumption.

This is the reason, Tomiyama explains, that consumer organizations have stopped short of calling for an immediate ban on GM soybeans. "If we called for a ban the Japanese would have to forego an important part of their diet. Put it this way, we may be economically rich but we would have to starve," she says.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries reports that genetic engineering agriculture has tremendous advantages for farmers because the technology helps crops to become resistant to weather conditions as well as pests.

The United States and Canada are the world's leaders in transgenic crops. Annual sales to Japan, the number one market, is around $11 billion for the United States.

In a bid to keep up with US competition in the biotechnology business, the government has earmarked $20 billion in the next five years for the development of gene-altered agriculture.

Major companies are also investing heavily in the technology. Hitachi Ltd said last month that a division is specializing in biotechnology to analyze food and medical products with a sales target of 25 trillion yen ($233 billion) by 2010.

Consumer organizations are expressing fear about public funds being used to persuade local farmers, already struggling with low profits, to move away from traditionally labour intensive farming and begin to produce more GM products.

"Financial gains and convenience could encourage Japan's farming community to take to bio-technology. The only way we can fight this is to increase consumer awareness aimed at reducing the market for GM foods," says Tomiyama.

But Tomiyama points to victories down the road to make food more safe for consumers. Honda Motor Co said this week that it would build a plant in the United States and hire farmers to supply only conventional soybeans.

The Tokyo Grain Exchange reports a steep decline in the October prices for US soybean futures, reflecting Japanese consumers' strong resistance to GM food products. Last week it finished at 17,500 yen ($163) per kilogram, about half the all-time high that the market set in November.

Pioneer Hybrid Japan, a major seed company, reports it has set up a system for importing non-transgenic soybeans for human consumption by commissioning cultivation to farmers in the United States in response to demand from food manufacturers.

In another important move, the government promised to subject 30 food products, both local and imported, to mandatory labelling for genetically modified organisms by next April when it revises the Japanese Agricultural Standards.

Japan also plans to notify the World Trade Organization of the plan by December this year. The list includes corn, snacks, tofu and other traditional products made from soya bean.

The decision is expected to come under fire from major food exporting countries that are urging Japan not to require labelling which they say will make consumers worry more.

A Tokyo local government opinion poll earlier this year revealed that 90 percent of those surveyed expressed deep concern over the growing trend toward biotechnology.

Consumers cooperatives have begun labelling their products in a bid to allay fears. But even labelling has become quite difficult because of reports that some imported GM agricultural crops are being mixed with non-transgenic crops, they say.

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .