TOKYO (Reuters) - Something as simple as eating a bowl of rice could bring relief to millions of Japanese hay fever sufferers each year -- if that rice is ever allowed to hit the market.
The rice, now under development in Japan, is genetically modified, but GM technology is still viewed with deep suspicion by many consumers here, where no GMO crops are commercially grown despite increasing a growth in global acreage.
Still, some industry officials say a biotech crop with health-enhancing characteristics may offer one of the best chances for acceptance of GMO crops in a country that boasts one of the world's longest average life spans.
"Those are the kind of products that may find greater acceptance, at least in the context of the Japanese consumers," said Randy A. Hautea, director at the South East Asia Center of the pro-biotech International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
Hay fever, which by some estimates afflicts one in five Japanese, has ballooned into a major health problem.
"Japan has a high premium on things like improving the quality of life," said Hautea, who is based in the Philippines.
Japanese researchers have successfully cultivated a genetically modified rice that contains some of the allergy-related proteins found in Japanese cedar pollen, the most common cause of hay fever in Japan.
Eating the rice helps the body's immune system develop a tolerance to the allergy-causing pollen, much in the same way as allergy shots, experts say.
Experiments on mice have shown that those fed with the rice sneezed much less often than mice that had also been showered with pollen but had not eaten the rice.
Japanese researchers have been working on the project since about 2000, and the next major step would be to test the effectiveness of eating the transgenic rice on humans.
But Japan's Agriculture Ministry, which is supervising the project, says it does not have a timetable for beginning testing on humans, much less one for when the rice might reach consumers.
Nevertheless, the developers hope to bring a product to market at some point, said Shinichi Ui of the ministry's Innovative Technology Division.
Ui said the project had reached a sensitive phase in many ways, including defining whether the crop should be described as "food" or "medicine," in which case the farm ministry must work closely with the Health Ministry.
"This is all new to us, and there are no precedents that might give us some idea of how things will develop from here," he said.
No country has yet produced GMO rice on a commercial basis, although China appeared close to taking that step in 2005.
The transgenic rice's future in Japan is further clouded by the fact that anti-GMO consumer groups are unlikely to accept it regardless of whether it is called food or medicine.
Namiko Ono, a member of the No GMO Campaign, said the consumer group remains opposed to genetically modified food even if it is produced for pharmaceutical purposes.
"We remain distrustful of the technology as we do not think its safety has been fully proved," she said.
She said it was likely to be a time-consuming process for the rice to become commercially available, especially if it is designated a pharmaceutical product.
"I think the Health Ministry will study the product very carefully, and I think that process will most likely take a lot of time."
As the world's top net farm product importer, however, Japan cannot remain isolated from the trend of growing more biotech crops as seen particularly in the United States, the leading supplier of Japan's corn and soybeans.
While much of the GMO corn Japan imports is made into cattle feed, biotech soybeans are also used in a range of human food products such as soy sauces.
In the roughly 10 years since biotech crops have become available, consumers have been buying food products without always being aware that GMO products might have been used in their production.
This is because Japanese guidelines do not require food labels to make a distinction if the GMO crop's DNA or protein cannot be traced in the final product.
According to ISAAA, more than half of the world's biotech farmland is in the United States. The organization has said it expects the amount of land used for biotech crops to nearly double to 200 million hectares by 2015 from 102 million in 2006.
"It will put Japan in a situation ... where it will have to become realistic and pragmatic in its assessment of biotech crops," ISAAA's Hautea said.