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Food Safety Citizens' Watch
English Newsletter

Issue # 8, Lawsuit stops field trials with genetically modified rice June 2006

Food Safety Citizens' Watch was established in April 2003 as a network of experts to monitor developments and make proposals to the government regarding food safety issues from the citizen's point of view.
June, 2006
Lawsuit stops field trials with genetically modified rice
Due to the recent trend that Japan's National Agricultural Experiment Stations have become independent administrative agencies, as well as the global move towards competition for the patenting of seeds, the regional research centers are increasingly absorbed in genetic engineering projects.

In Joetsu, the rice producing area in Niigata prefecture, the National Agricultural Experiment Station became the Hokuriku Research Center. After the change of status, it started field trials with genetically modified rice plants in the area. In one project, a novel protein has been introduced into the rice. This antibacterial peptide, called defensin, was taken from the mustard plant karashina (Brassica juncea), and will appear in the green parts of the rice plant, such as the stem and the leaves. The purpose is to make the rice plants resistant to rice blast disease.

Last year, the first planting of this GM rice was halted by a provisional court deposition from the defense council. It was stated that the reason was fear of hybridization with rice plants nearby. However, as the court trial continued, there was also evidence that the greatest threat from this GM rice is the appearance of antibacterial resistance to defensin.

Defensin is a protein that defends the body from bacterial infections. If bacteria are constantly exposed to defensin, it is highly likely that they will develop resistance, and defensin becomes useless. Although there are differences in how defensin is expressed in humans and in plants, experts say that the basic mechanism is the same.

The research center argued that mustard plants have been making defensin for a very long time, and that resistance never emerged. However, as humans have introduced a large number of new antibiotics, for example in animal feed, it is clear that this leads to antibiotic resistance. The major difference is that in nature, antibacterial substances only appear when they are needed, while humans have introduced massive amounts in an improper way. In the case of the GM rice plant, it is designed to produce a lot of defensin at all times, thus increasing the likelihood that bacteria will develop resistance. This resistance would inevitably lead to a crisis both for humans and for the ecosystem.

The research center argued that if resistance emerges, other agricultural chemicals can be used to combat disease in the rice plants. However, only considering rice plants is a very limited viewpoint. If large fields of rice plants are planted, there is an increased likelihood that such resistance will emerge. Rice paddies are a treasure house for microbes, including many pathogens that also cause disease in animals and humans. There is abundance of insects, and with the ultraviolet rays from the sunshine, dangerous bacteria will easily mutate as the defensin will appear continuosly. The center appears to be ignorant of this fear as they insist on conducting the controversial GM rice field trials.

When the research center received this particular permit to conduct the field trials, there were no provisions for prevention of the emergence of defensin resistant bacteria. In regular field trials for hybrid rice, specifications both for buffer zones and for time separation (allochronic isolation) are required. However, since defensin resistance was not expected, there were no such requirements for the GM rice field trials, and also no requirements for carrying out such examination. There were not even any considerations or explanation about it by the center.

Unfortunately, the Tokyo High Court noted in its rejection of our provisional deposition that "the appearance of resistant bacteria is a groundless fear".

Following that rejection, a lawsuit was filed in December 2005 against the field trials of the defensin rice in the Niigata district court, Takada branch. The plaintiffs want the field trials to be prohibited, and are also seeking compensation for distress. The plaintiffs include farmers and consumers, as well as the singer Kato Tokiko, manga artist Chiba Tetsuya, agricultural writer Yamashita Souichi, actor Nakamura Atsuo, and researcher Nakashima Takako. On February 2, 2006 the first court hearing with Yamashita Souichi was held. Mr. Yamashita attended after having travelled all the way from Saga prefecture to make his statement, in a crowded court house with not a single empty seat.

For the second case, the pediatrician Mori Taneki joined the group of plaintiffs, who reached a total of 23 people. The plaintiffs have called this a "forbidden science trial" and regard it as based on the precautionary principle. The research center has responded by hurling abuse at the plaintiffs, calling it a "fantasy science trial" and urging the plaintiffs to "show evidence that hybridization and antibiotic resistance have appeared". However, once hybridization and antibiotic resistance have indeed become a reality, the damage will be irreversible.

Citizen's Biotechnology Information Center also has updates about the Niigata GM rice trials: http://www5d.biglobe.ne.jp/~cbic/english/index.html

Kamiyama Michiko