TOKYO — Pity the "transgenic" tomato. It has become a marketing disaster on both sides of the Pacific, and a cautionary tale for Japanese biotechnology.
It began life in a California laboratory as a miracle product, a tomato bioengineered to be tasty but slow to spoil. It was the first gene-spliced food to win approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And in 1994, when Kirin Brewery Co., Japan's top beer maker, acquired the Japanese rights to the Flavr-Savr tomato from Calgene Inc. of Davis, Calif., it seemed like a sure-fire winner.
Kirin quickly won approval from Japan's Health and Welfare Ministry to market the tomato here, and set to work crossbreeding it with Japanese species to produce the pink color, particular taste and compact growth characteristics that consumers and farmers here prefer.
But before the tomato got near the supermarket shelves, a Japanese consumer group that opposes genetically engineered food threatened to boycott every Kirin product--including its beer--if the company dared to put its brave new product on the market.
Kirin pulled the offending vegetable. In a recent interview, company spokesmen politely avoided comment on the boycott threat, but said Kirin will not try to market its tomato--or any other genetically modified food--until and unless the Japanese public is prepared to accept it.
"Until we resolve the taste, color and growth issues, we can't sell it," explained spokesman Hirotaka Ishikawa. "In addition, we need to have the public's understanding. Right now, people feel resistance even when they hear the words 'genetic engineering.' "
But Kirin has by no means abandoned bioengineering. It is quietly continuing efforts to produce a genetically superior tomato--even though Calgene's Flavr-Savr has been a dud with U.S. shoppers.
Meanwhile, Kirin's "agribio business division" has engineered a virus-resistant chrysanthemum, which is undergoing environmental-safety testing. And its pharmaceutical division is marketing two genetically engineered drugs that are injected rather then ingested and have drawn no protests.
As goes Kirin, so goes Japan. Alarmed that Japan is lagging far behind the U.S. and Europe in biotechnology, and determined to become a world-class competitor in bioscience, the Japanese government is pouring money into research and development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and technologies to improve crops, pharmaceuticals, medicine, environmental protection and industrial processes.
The budget for biotech research for the fiscal year that begins next month is about $2.6 billion--up 11% over that of the current fiscal year despite the biting recession here. The budget spreads money and projects among key corporations and at least five ministries and agencies to ensure bureaucratic and corporate support.
The national policy of focusing on biotechnology--which is expected to win Cabinet approval next month--is reminiscent of the way postwar Japan targeted such strategic industries as steel and autos to nurture them into international competitors.
However, according to Japanese media reports, the new biotech strategy also is aimed at creating 70,000 to 80,000 new jobs by expanding the domestic market twenty-fivefold by 2010, from its current level of about $8.7 billion a year.
Although Japanese scientists are on the cutting edge with such biotech methods as cell fusion and fermentation, officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said, they lag their U.S. and European competitors in gene splicing. Estimates of how far behind they are range from 18 months to more than five years. So many vital genetic methods and materials have been patented by Westerners that Japanese companies face paying steep usage fees until they can catch up with proprietary genetic inventions of their own.
One of the few genetically modified agricultural products that has made it to market in Japan is a lavender-blue carnation jointly developed by Suntory Ltd. and Florigene, an Australian firm. The carnation, called "Moondust," gets its blue tint from a petunia gene. It is grown in Australia and imported into Japan in the form of cut flowers. Suntory says it sold 200,000 of the flowers last year for up to $3.50 each.
No one objected.
Now the government is mounting a public education campaign to persuade the Japanese public that gene-spliced foods also are unobjectionable.
Powerful anti-GMO farm lobbies, along with consumer and environmental groups, are pitted against some of Japan's largest agribusinesses, which are developing such genetically modified products as rice, melons, tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers and would like to bring them to market.
A Lack of Incentive?
Government officials are worried that unless the prevailing negative attitude toward GMOs can be changed, the biotech industry will have little incentive to pursue research and development and Japan will fall even further behind in the vital technology.