An article yesterday about the use of genetically modified foods in Japan incorrectly said the United States provides most of Japan's food. It supplies most of Japan's genetically modified food. (Published 01/25/2000)

Japan, the world's largest food importer, is in the midst of a struggle over how to treat genetically modified foods.

The government has gone along with consumer demands for labels on such products starting next year. This has prompted a rush toward non-genetically modified tofu, beer and soy sauce in local markets, and a jump in import orders for non-genetically modified soybeans and corn from the United States, the source of most of Japan's food.

The action also has generated anger among U.S. business and trade officials. "The Ministry of Agriculture is quite cynically using the GMO [genetically modified organism] issue for internal political reasons," said Dennis Kitch, Japan director of the U.S. Grains Council.

In the five months since the labeling requirement was announced, a major supermarket chain has started identifying its genetically modified products. The Asahi and Kirin Beer companies said they will switch entirely to non-genetically modified ingredients. And Japanese soybean farmers, who do not use any genetically modified seeds, are enjoying a huge demand for their beans--even at three to four times the price of imported American ones.

A Ministry of Agriculture official denied the labeling was intended to protect Japanese farmers. "Unlike Europe, Japan has a very low food self-sufficiency rate," said Kazuhiko Kawamura, deputy director of the ministry's food-labeling division. "For soybeans, it's 3 percent. For corn, almost zero. For Japan it's almost embarrassing and we do need to raise this rate, but it is clear we cannot fulfill domestic demand by ourselves. We are not denying at all GMO products."

In fact, the Japanese government is pouring billions of dollars into developing its own genetically modified food. But there are no plans to market these creations because of the negative public sentiment surrounding GMOs.

Some consumer groups campaigned against GMO products as unnecessary and not adequately tested for safety.

For now, domestic farmers are getting a boost from the dispute. A group of shopkeepers in the Waseda area of Tokyo, for example, is getting nationwide attention for their My Tofu project. For about $38, a customer contracts with a farmer to grow a plot of non-GMO soybeans. The 50 customers who have signed up will get tofu produced from those beans.

"Japan has a manufacturer-led system, so I'd like to do something to establish a consumer-led structure, something that we can do because we're a small shop," said Junichiro Yasui, a shop owner who is a leader of the project. "Wal-Mart couldn't do this."

"Japanese consumer groups are very strongly wedded to the notion of self-sufficiency, that Japan should be able to produce its own," said Steven Vogel, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Berkley. "They're worried about dependence, worried about health and safety issues and basically don't believe foreign agricultural products are as safe as Japanese."

The Ministry of Agriculture said labeling has nothing to do with safety. "It's simply to give consumers a choice," Kawamura said. For now, many consumers seem to be choosing naturally produced food.

Miyoko Miyajima, head of school lunches for Kawagoe City, said she is trying to make the food served to 30,000 students as GMO-free as possible. She said suppliers are asked to provide unaltered food. "We heard that frozen cut potatoes from the United States might be genetically modified, so we asked for domestic potatoes."

According to the Ministry of Agriculture plan, a list of 30 types of food will require labeling if they meet a certain genetically modified content, starting in April 2001.

But some companies aren't waiting. Throughout the Jusco Supermarket in the Nishikasai section of Tokyo, for example, small red labels are attached to food shelves. They state that the product is GMO-free, mostly GMO-free, or that its main ingredients are probably genetically modified.

Customer Kumiko Takeda, 26, who works part time at a bakery, said: "I won't buy genetically modified foods. They're scary." Terue Watabe, 65, had a different reaction: "I'm too busy to notice about those little things."

Some manufactureres are switching to non-genetically modified ingredients--even if it costs more. The import company Marubeni's latest order for soybeans--700,000 tons--is all non-GMO, and will cost 15 percent more. Two years ago, only half the order was for GMO-free beans.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Grocery store owner Junichiro Yasui holds a package of non-modified tofu from the My Tofu project.