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SEEDS OF DISPUTE: Crop crusaders
By MIKA OMURA, The Asahi Shimbun

Farmers fight to keep genetically modified plants from wreaking havoc in their fields.

Farmers adamant about preventing genetically modified plants from infiltrating their fields are declaring GM crop-free zones to bolster public awareness and fight the influx of such wayward crops.

There is every indication that their concerns are well-founded.

The Environment Ministry disclosed Feb. 14 that GM rapeseed with resistance to herbicides had been detected in 11 locations near ports. These included Kajima and Yokkaichi in Ibaraki and Mie prefectures, respectively, along with Kobe, Chiba and Nagoya.

The seeds likely spilled from containers during unloading or transportation.

Each year, Japan imports about 2 million tons of rapeseed, mainly as an ingredient for cooking oil. Japan began importing GM crops in the 1990s.

Farmers worry that imported GM rapeseed will cross-pollinate and hybridize the closely related domestic rapeseed and other crops.

``If we allow GM rapeseed to flourish, we won't be able to stop worrying about whether we can continue to collect our own seeds for cultivation,'' said Shigetaka Hayashi, 50, a farmer in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture.

Hayashi has been raising Western rapeseed crops using seeds collected from his field and stored for the next season.

When Hayashi heard that GM rapeseed had been found growing in Chiba Prefecture, he started worrying that his field could become ``contaminated'' and last year decided not to produce the crop.

``If I trade seeds collected from a contaminated crop with a fellow farmer, I would inadvertently be lending a hand in spreading GM seeds,'' he said.

Anti-GM groups are waging a grass-roots public awareness campaign. A large signboard announcing ``Genetic modification crops are not allowed here'' stands in the middle of a rice paddy in Takashima, Shiga Prefecture, near Lake Biwako.

The sign was erected by eight rice farmers who banded together as ``Harie genki mai saibai'' (Harie healthy rice farming) group. They started their own GM-free zone movement last month.

Group member Fumio Ishizu, 57, explained: ``We want people to stop and wonder, what is this? That will be a start, and we can go from there to explain what's wrong with genetically modified crops.''

Meantime, civic organizations in Chiba Prefecture are taking a hands-on approach.

On Feb. 6, about 15 members from two groups, ``Stop GM Seeds Network Japan'' and ``Yuki Netto Chiba'' took part in a clean-up project to pull up GM rapeseed growing along the roadside near JR Chiba-Minato Station.

The volunteers-including Hayashi, the farmer from Sakura-filled 10 large bags in one morning.

`We want people to stop and wonder, what is this? ... We can go from there to explain what's wrong with genetically modified crops.' FUMIO ISHIZU Farmer, anti-GM activist

Since it is impossible to tell if a rapeseed plant is GM or not just by looking at it, the workers pulled up all the rapeseed they found.

Some plants had grown about shoulder high and some had already flowered and were carrying seeds.

The plants were grouped into three batches according to location and tested for genetic modifications.

All groups contained GM rapeseed.

The GM-free zone movement is going strong in Europe where governments are cautious about introducing GM crops.

In Japan, the ``NO! GMO Campaign'' organized by consumer organizations began calling for the creation of GM-free zones last month.

At the moment, there are no GM crops produced commercially in Japan, but some farmers have begun requesting the right to grow GM crops.

The new ``NO!'' movement aims at getting more farmers to forego GM crops, and to expand GM crop-free zone areas.

At the moment, pledges are being collected through various co-ops, organizations and farms.

Group representative Keisuke Amagasa said, ``Our goal is to achieve pledges from 10,000 farmers, just as in Germany.''

Local governments are not sitting back idly, either.

In Iwate, Ibaraki and Shiga prefectures, the authorities established guidelines that restrict GM crop production.

The Tokyo metropolitan government is also looking into implementing similar rules.

Hokkaido is one step ahead.

It has already compiled a draft ordinance that carries penalties for offenders who embark on commercial GM crop production without a permit. Scheduled to take effect shortly, it would be the first such regulation on this issue at the local government level.

Hokkaido is determined to protect its unique ``Hokkaido brand'' crops, keeping them free of contamination and preventing cross-breeding with general crops.

No GM rapeseed were found growing in the wild during the first Environment Ministry investigation undertaken in fiscal 2003.

But the second investigation found plenty near the 11 port areas. The study was conducted by collecting sample seed specimens from Western rapeseed, domestic rapeseed and mustard plant, found growing in 86 locations around the major ports where imported rapeseed is unloaded-plus dry riverbed areas in Ibaraki, Saitama and Chiba prefectures.

Further, according to a Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries report released last June, two plant specimens out of seven, collected from Western rapeseed varieties found growing within a 5-kilometer radius of Kajima port in 2002, were found to be carrying genetically modified genomes. The report also said six seed samples out of 20 were found to be genetically modified.

Nobuyoshi Nakajima, a researcher at the National Institute for Environmental Studies, studied seeds collected from rapeseed plants growing at 45 locations along main roads in Ibaraki Prefecture and Chiba Prefecture last year.

He discovered genetically modified genomes from samples collected at seven locations along Highway 51 in Narita and Sakura, Chiba Prefecture, far from the port area.

Nakajima also studied mustard plants growing in dry riverbeds, but did not discover GM plants at the time.

He commented: ``It is not all that easy for hybrid plants to establish themselves in a new setting-they must thrive in a competitive natural environment and be hardy enough to produce seeds for the next generation. Chances are considered pretty low, but close monitoring should continue.''(IHT/Asahi: February 25,2005)




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