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Japan: Genome-edited tomato goes on shelves

08/10/2021 - François-Xavier Branthôme
Tomato becomes the first food modified by CRISPR to be marketed in the world

 A start-up launched at the University of Tsukuba has recently started selling a tomato variety developed with genome editing technology, the first food product of this kind ever to be put on the Japanese market.

Sanatech Seed Co. in Tokyo developed the variety by modifying genes so that it contains four to five times the usual amount of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a substance that can prevent blood pressure from rising. Sicilian Red High GABA tomato produces lower than usual quantities of an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid GABA (or gamma-aminobutyric acid), so fruits contain more GABA than normal tomatoes. GABA is produced by our body and plays a key role in the brain and nervous system. In addition, other types of GABA have been increased that specifically lower blood pressure. The product is sold online by Pioneer EcoScience Co., which established Sanatech in 2018. According to media, the price of the world’s first genetically modified tomato has been fixed at USD68 per kg.

Named Sicilian Rouge High GABA, the genome-edited tomato is grown in greenhouses by a contracted farmer in Kumamoto Prefecture.
Sanatech used genome editing technology to remove the auto-inhibitory domain that prevents tomatoes from increasing their GABA content. However, the start-up did not add any genes that are not naturally found in the vegetable.

In December last year, Sanatech Seeds submitted a notice of its intent to commercialize Sicilian Rouge High GABA as the nation’s first genome-edited food product to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The notification was accepted.
The government does not require business operators to identify gene-edited foods as such in their labeling, but Sanatech Seeds makes it clear that the variety was developed using genome editing technology. 

In the European Union, the tomato would currently be regulated as a genetically modified product, which would make the cost of authorization prohibitive. However, the UK is expected to change its legislation soon. Sanatech Seed has previously said it is "closely following" UK regulations.

UK confirms plans to develop gene-edited food crops
The UK government is set to relax rules to make it easier to research and develop gene-edited food crops in England. This move follows a public consultation earlier this year. Genome editing, also referred to as gene editing, is often described as a small, controlled tweak to a living organism's existing DNA. That’s different to genetic modification, which is the introduction of a new, foreign gene.
Changes introduced by genome editing can be identical to those occurring naturally or achieved through traditional breeding but can be made more quickly and precisely.
There are currently no GE foods on the market in the UK or Europe, although Brussels is reviewing its stance on CRISPR crops too.

Leaving the EU allows the UK to set "its own rules, opening up opportunities to adopt a more scientific and proportionate approach to the regulation of genetic technologies," the government believes. The initiative will unlock the power of gene editing to help farmers grow more resistant, more nutritious and more productive crops, the government said. The plans could also streamline innovative applications which are deemed to have environmental, economic and nutritional benefits, it added.

"We support giving consumers choice," said Professor Robin May, UK Food Standards Authority Chief Scientific Adviser. “We recognize the potential benefits of GE methods, and understand the Government's desire to unlock innovation and take advantage of opportunities for greater productivity and environmental sustainability in the food chain. However, GE or GM foods will only be permitted if they are judged to be safe to eat, not mislead consumers, and not have less nutritional value than similar products that are already on the market”.

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