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Science

Japan approves gene-edited 'super tomato.' But will anyone eat it?

Heart-healthy fruit from university startup faces market wary of GMOs

The new tomato contains five times the normal amount of a compound linked to lower blood pressure. (Photo courtesy of Hiroshi Ezura at Tsukuba University)

TOKYO -- Food made with genome editing technology is set to head to Japan's dinner tables for the first time with the government's approval of a new heart-healthy tomato.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare on Friday approved the production and sale of a tomato developed by the University of Tsukuba and Sanatech Seed, a startup from the school. The fruit features five times the normal amount of GABA, an amino acid linked to lower blood pressure, thanks to tweaks to genes that normally limit GABA production.

"This took 15 years to develop," said Hiroshi Ezura, a professor at the university and chief technology officer of Sanatech. "Using advanced technology, we finally created something that's good to eat."

Unlike standard genetic modification, which involves inserting foreign genes into a plant or animal's DNA, genome editing makes direct changes to an organism's genetic code, giving researchers a more efficient way to improve nutrition or boost yields. But while the Japanese government considers the technology safe, persuading consumers to agree may prove more challenging.

Sanatech plans to start offering seedlings for home gardens this spring via online orders, then fully launch seed sales to large-scale producers in the fall, with an eye toward widespread consumer access to the tomatoes in 2022. The seedlings and fruit will be clearly labeled as being produced with gene editing technology.

The approval of the tomato represents "a big step forward for breeding in Japan," said Takashi Yamamoto, a professor at Hiroshima University and president of the Japanese Society for Genome Editing.

Other genome editing projects in Japan -- mostly handled by universities or public research institutions -- aim to produce higher-yield rice plants, meatier sea bream and hypoallergenic eggs.

A gene-edited sea bream, left, at Kindai University's Aquaculture Laboratory.

But in the private sector, Japanese food makers have shied away from the technology.

House Foods Group has conducted research on gene-edited vegetables, but the company says this was intended only for "technical understanding" and that it has no plans to bring edited foods to market. Kagome, known for its ketchup and tomato sauce, took a similar stance on its own research.

This reluctance reflects consumer worries about safety. A survey of about 10,000 people by the University of Tokyo found that 40% to 50% did not want to eat edited crops or animal products, with just 10% showing interest in trying them.

"Big companies have preexisting breeding technology and know-how, so they don't need to adopt gene editing," said Yuki Ishii, assistant chief researcher at Nomura Agri Planning & Advisory. "The market will probably be driven mainly by startups."

Though neither Japan nor the U.S. requires labeling of edited foods, some consumer groups have pushed for more regulation. Though the technology carries little safety risk, "it will be important to provide information to allay consumers' concerns," Ishii said.

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