Consumer groups and farmers in Japan fear the repercussions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP), which is quickly moving forward on the heels of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conference of the other ten nations (including Australia, Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam) now involved in talks.
Japan is calling for a possible signing in March 2018 after working diligently to lead the agreement forward even after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States, sending the trade pact negotiations into chaos. Japanese citizens’ groups and farmers, though, are concerned that the agreement may weaken some of Japan’s existing laws regarding genetically modified organisms or GMOs as well as opening Japan’s domestic agriculture sector to competition from large multinational firms.
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The story of GMOs in Japan is one that has been largely advanced through citizens and consumer campaigns. Topping the list of groups working on the issue is the Citizens Union of Japan or (CUJ), which has been actively advocating for GMO labeling since the early 1990s, after the Japanese government approved the domestic sale of imported GM soybeans, corn, and other grains. The CUJ started the campaign to demand mandatory labeling and members of CUJ created an organization committed solely to the GMO issue, called the Non-GMO campaign.
Along with the CUJ, the Non-GMO campaign has the goal of a GMO-free Japan and like the CUJ opposes Japan’s move to advance the TPP. Public aversion to GMOs around the world, along with the high percentage of imported foods in Japan’s domestic market, reached a water mark in 1998 when rainbow papaya became available in Japan. When Japanese consumers became aware that the papaya was genetically altered, citizens groups protested and the public and media led an outcry against the genetically modified fruit. The Japanese government responded to these concerns by creating its own regime that controls and monitors Japan’s imported food. The system works; in September 2000, for example, Japan’s inspectors detected star link corn in a U.S. shipment bound for use as food. The detection of the GMO corn, which was not even approved as an animal feed in Japan ( although it was authorized for such use in the United States), caused a nationwide recall of more than 300 corn-based foods.
It is this very set of laws that consumer groups feel are in jeopardy, as Japan scrapped its 1952 Seed Law, which was the legal foundation for Japan’s agricultural experiment stations, in advance of TPP negotiations this fall. These stations create budget requests for prefectural governments seed expenses. The experiment stations name seeds that are recommended to local farmers and make budget requests to assist with production costs of the seeds, which are then sold to farmers at a cheaper cost. The seeds have all been grown domestically until now, but the abolishment of the law means that private companies may produce and sell seeds that come from outside of Japan.
Moreover, some commentaters argue that seeds are likely to become more expensive as the abolishment of the Seed Law undermines the budget requests that experiment stations create on behalf of prefectural governments.
Corporate Seeds May Threaten Food Security
The abolition of the Seed Law paves for the way for large multinational agricultural corporations to produce and sell seeds to Japanese farmers, thereby potentially undercutting the domestic seed market. It is likely that if Japan follows this path, Japanese farmers may experience the problems documented widely by other farmers in countries like India. Once multi-national businesses began selling their seeds there, farmers were forced to rely on them more and more, because private sector seed technologies are non-germinating. That means farmers must purchase seeds every year instead of collecting next year’s seeds from this year’s planting.
The potential for corporate inroads into Japan’s seed market is problematic for many consumers and farmers who are worried about the protection of genetic resources and technology of Japan’s domestic seed production. One farmer in Joge prefecture that I spoke with this summer told me, when asked about the TPP, “Its very worrying. I’m not sure small Japanese farmers can stand up to this foreign influence.” His concerns may be justified, especially given Japan’s protected agriculture industry and low food security. Japan’s heavily regulated food supply may not be ready for this opening to competition from foreign business.
Consumer groups, meanwhile, fear the impact on the ability of Japanese “to purchase food that they can trust and not be at the mercy of corporations who care more about profit than health and that control GMOs by patenting their technology,” a representative from the CUJ told me.
GMOs in the TPP
Japan, like many other countries, has used the Cartegena Protocol as a basis for its national legal framework regarding GMOs. The TPP does this as well; unfortunately, however, the TPP does not detail how the protocol will be implemented, nor does it apply GMO regulations for food, feed, or laboratory research as the Protocol does. The TPP does not restrict the trade of GMOs and establishes that countries are not required to modify or adopt laws, regulations, or policies to control products of biotechnology.
Rather than putting consumer concerns forefront, the agreement puts a burden on countries that have enacted these laws, requiring them to provide a risk and safety assessment that rationalizes their usage. Along with the risk and safety assessments, countries that limit GMOs must provide documents to potential importers and a list of previously authorized GMOs. A working group on products of biotechnology is also established by the agreement. These measure underscore that risks with regard to GMOs are borne by the member countries, which must link policies that limit the import of GMOs with scientifically backed risk and safety assessments. Currently, Japan’s policies regarding GMOs are fairly strong; they are more heavily regulated than they are in the United States but not as strongly as European regulations.
The TPP establishes a framework for negotiation that rests on consultation with scientific experts called “cooperative technical consultation” when member countries disagree. Unlike the Codex Alimantarius, the international legal document that the TPP refers to and is based upon, Chapter 7 of the TPP, which deals with Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards has the primary goal of protecting “human, animal or plant life or health in the territories of the Parties while facilitating and expanding trade by utilizing a variety of means to address and seek to resolve sanitary and phytosanitary issues.” This language puts measures to protect human, plant, and animal life and health in the context of trade rather than promoting consumer health singularly. Thus the TPP SPS agreement potentially puts health standards below trade liberalization, making them subordinate to concerns related to trade.
The TPP: High Stakes for Japan
In December 2017, after the November meeting of TPP negotiators in Da Nang, Vietnam, Canada raised concerns about its cultural goods and services that must be worked out before there is a deal. Canada is the second-largest economy in the TPP after Japan and without it, there is a likelihood that countries currently working with Japan on the TPP will seek out other trade partnerships in the region and look to China for leadership. There are a number of items which must be worked out in order for the deal to move forward.
For Japan, this is a high stakes negotiation as the country seeks to solidify a trade and investment regime for the region that would serve as a touchstone for other future deals. Japan is especially concerned about its upcoming bilateral trade negotiation with the United States, which is set to start in 2018, and China’s ambitions to move forward with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as the ASEAN-led Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes China and Japan among the 16 negotiating nations.
If the TPP fails to move forward and the other agreements proceed, Japan will lose the opportunity to build strong rules and norms in the region that reflect the values that Tokyo considers important. Consumer groups and farmers opposing the deal are facing an uphill battle.
Nicole Freiner is an associate professor at Bryant University in Rhode Island, United States.