Regulating GM crops a local matter
Ten of the nation's 47 prefectures have their own regulations on the open-air cultivation of genetically modified plants, an Asahi Shimbun survey has found.

The local ordinances or guidelines are meant to prevent cross-pollination and hybridization of GM plants with related crops in the region.

"Once cross-breeding or mixups take place, it will be too late," said an agriculture section official of Niigata Prefecture.

Japan began to import GM crops in the 1990s, but no commercial production has started here because of consumer concerns over safety.

Niigata, known for its Koshihikari rice, put a stringent ordinance into effect in May. It obliges farmers to get permission to grow GM crops, while research institutes must file reports on open-air experiments.

Violators face up to a year in prison or fines of up to 500,000 yen.

GM crops are the focus of persistent concerns over safety and possible effects on the environment. Niigata and other prefectures want to avoid having the reputations of their produce hurt by the GM taint.

In Tokushima Prefecture, which implemented an ordinance in April, officials say it is part of its "farm brand strategy" to compete with other production centers.

"The image that no GM crops are produced in the prefecture is important," said one official.

Chiba and Kyoto prefectures also introduced similar ordinances in April, while Hokkaido implemented one in January.

The Hokkaido rules set minimum distances between GM crop fields and others. The distance is at least 300 meters for rice, 1.2 kilometers for corn and 2 km for sugar beets.

The distances are about twice as long as those set by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for its research entities.

The other five of the 10 prefectures have set up GM crop guidelines.

Ibaraki, Shiga and Iwate established them in 2004, followed by Hyogo in April this year and Tokyo in May.

Similar moves are spreading to municipalities.

Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, will put new guidelines in effect in September. An ordinance will be proposed to the Imabari city assembly in Ehime Prefecture in the same month.

Many of these local entities are setting rules to prevent conflict between producers and anti-GM farmers and consumers.

In Hokkaido, Niigata Prefecture and Tsukuba, local farmers, co-ops and consumers have put up strong resistance to GM crop production tests at research institutes.

In Japan, GM crop production is regulated under the so-called Cartagena Law, which went into force in February 2004 to maintain biological diversity and safety.

Open-air production is allowed for 91 crop varieties, including rice, corn and soybeans. Farmers are allowed to cultivate varieties among the 91 that have further cleared safety screening under the food sanitation and other laws, but there has been no known case yet.

"While laws ensure the safety of GM crops, it is up to each local entity to decide not to produce them," said an official of the farm ministry's plant products safety division.

While some researchers are concerned local regulations may hinder their work, there are also calls among local officials for the central government to make unified rules.(IHT/Asahi: August 21,2006
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