Will nuclear mishap affect biotech wheat prospects?
It was an odd coincidence that the cover of the March 8 issue of Milling & Baking News bore a map of Japan, the first time such an image had appeared on the cover.
The eerie timing meant the issue just reached readers when the disastrous March 11 earthquake and tsunami, followed by the nuclear crisis, struck Japan. The coincidence, though, extended even further than Page 1.
The subject of the cover story was a controversial presentation at the Wheat Quality Council annual meeting by Jeffrey Smyth, head of U.S. baking operations for Yamazaki Baking Co., the largest baker in Japan. In the days that followed, Yamazaki was thrust into the spotlight after the disaster because of its massive humanitarian effort in supplying food to the hundreds of thousands displaced by the catastrophe. Mr. Smyth for many years has warned against the introduction of agricultural biotechnology in wheat, reflecting his belief that consumers in Japan, a major importer of wheat, will not accept bioengineered grains.
Mr. Smyth encountered considerable skepticism and perhaps some anger from his audience, but it’s likely that his words are continuing to echo in view of what transpired afterward in Japan. Mr. Smyth warned that even if regulatory authorities approve bioengineered wheat, “There is still much fierce opposition to overcome” among consumers. The nuclear crisis resulting from the natural disaster is a reminder of the perils of modern technology, even when major safeguards are put into place. Fears of water and food supply contamination because of radiation leakage are causing great agitation in Japan and beyond.
While biotechnology and nuclear power are hardly analogous, opponents of food biotechnology use exactly these kinds of arguments in contending that no safeguard is foolproof. It remains too early to assess the long-term ramifications of what has happened in Japan, but it seems fair to forecast that the Japanese population’s concern about food safety and their suspicion of technologies like bioengineered food will not diminish any time soon.