Japan’s disaster must not block technology

by Morton Sosland
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Of many comments heard regarding the likely impact of Japan’s catastrophes this spring on national and international attitudes toward food, one stood out for seeming almost contrary to what might be expected. This was the belief coming from people who know grain-based foods in Japan that these horrors strongly reinforced opposition by the Japanese to genetically-modified wheat. “If you think these people doubted the safety of eating foods made from modified wheat before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant episode, then the aftermath is total, enduring rejection,” is the way this opinion has been stated. The commentator sought to make sure that no one would even be tempted to wonder if the country’s long standing opposition to G.M. wheat or other modified crops might have changed in response to the turmoil in the wake of the horrific earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant breakdown.

Since Japan ranks at the top of the list of leading wheat importers, its views on this matter as well as anything else to do with wheat, flour and bread merit attention. As one of the most economically developed nations, Japan’s significance as a market for wheat-based foods is exceptionally important. Its attitudes toward assuring quality in wheat and how finished food products are made have played a significant role in shaping the global food market. What Japan says about wheat has a powerful effect.

Yet, questions must be asked about the origins of this heightened mistrust of genetically-modified crops, where modern science is used to improve the sustainability of production and to enhance nutritional contributions. How a nuclear plant disaster that did create questions about the safety of foods produced within a limited distance of that plant relates to genetic engineering does not have a good explanation. Indeed, it may seem quite the opposite to an observer untutored in the Japanese way of thinking. Sure, food with excessive radiation should not be eaten. No one disagrees with that, but it makes no sense, except in moments of Godzilla-type public hysteria, to tie food that excites a radiation monitor to food that is genetically modified by scientists wishing to make them better for the environment and for the well-being of humankind.

While nuclear fission or radiation have nothing to do with genetic modification, except that both rest on science, this reaction of the Japanese citizenry, if read correctly, reinforces the need to present the gains from genetic modification in a manner that people everywhere in the world will understand. Cool-headed rational thinking might suggest that the Japanese, in response to the devastating losses experienced from twin natural disasters, would have wanted assurances about the food supply. In that situation, they might have changed opinions leading to outright opposition to crop engineering and to look with an open mind to what it offers. Instead, to relate food science to the questions that are being asked about the safety of nuclear power plants in many parts of the world is one of the oddest connections seen in modern history.

These newly-intensified concerns about G.M. wheat in Japan appear to go hand-in-hand with worries about the safety of the nation’s food and water supplies. This is so even though extensive tests have shown that even minimal food safety concerns are restricted to food grown in the area immediately adjoining the damaged plant. International agencies have assured countries importing limited supplies from Japan that no safety issues have arisen. Japan is considered to be one of the most sensitive nations about food safety, and it has been a leader in banning imports from other countries where health problems have occurred. That may be well and good in times of real threats. But it makes no sense that Japan’s horrific experiences on account of natural disasters should somehow be translated into erecting new barriers to advances in wheat production that are based on good science and promise a better global agricultural system.

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