September 15, 2003
Japan Still Likely To Buy US Wheat after GMO Planting
Japanese consumers are accustomed to U.S. wheat. They like the end products derived from U.S. wheat. And some traders say the commercialization of genetically modified varieties of U.S. wheat isn't likely to change Japan's buying habits.
However, the case for wheat with genetically modified organisms is weak now, traders said, and the private sector is keenly aware of the strong consumer opposition to GMO wheat, making participants decidedly nervous about talking openly about it.
Japan buys about 3 million metric tons of wheat from the U.S. each year, making it the largest market for U.S. exporters, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
"Every origin, every grade (of wheat) has a different purpose or use. Some are good for noodles, some are good for bread. End users are used to what they are getting now, it's difficult to change. Actually, there may be no choice but to accept" that the U.S. may commercialize GMO wheat eventually, said a trader with a global trading house.
Traders said Japanese consumers are used to consuming, among other products, certain bread made from U.S. spring wheat, or from blending U.S. high-protein hard red winter with other wheat grades. Some types of noodles are made from blending U.S. low-protein HRW with other wheat grades, said traders.
"At this stage, I can say that the Japanese consumer won't accept GMO wheat. I don't know what will happen in a few years," said the trader.
Visiting Japanese flour millers in the U.S. said earlier this week they won't buy GMO wheat if it is commercialized in the U.S. regardless of whether Japan's government approves it.
Tsutomu Shigeta, executive director of Japan's Flour Millers Association, representing companies that make about 90% of the country's wheat purchases, and Wataru Aosaki, director of Nippon Flour Mills Co., both highlighted recent results of a poll showing that nearly 70% of Japanese people are either completely opposed to GMOs or would refuse to eat them in food.
Setting a Tolerance Level To Ensure US Imports
Traders said the biggest problem when importing U.S. wheat will be contamination of non-GMO wheat by the GMO variety, as shown in cases of non- GMO corn and soybeans.
However, they said imposing a zero tolerance level would be quite impossible.
Traders said the Japanese government could get around the problem by stipulating a tolerance level, say 5%, which allows cargoes to possibly contain some GMO variety up to 5% of the total volume of non-GMO wheat.
"That is the only way to continue buying U.S. wheat. If they grow GMO wheat next to non-GMO wheat, some comingling will happen," said a second trader.
A 1% tolerance level would be quite hard to achieve, some traders said.
For now, however, Japan can rest assured that it will be a few more years before GMO wheat is commercialized, said traders.
Monsanto Co. has already made submissions for GMO wheat to the U.S. government, but a U.S. decision on the application isn't expected until spring 2004.
Monsanto Japan Ltd. is still preparing its submission for Japan's Food Safety Commission, said Tomomiki Sakamoto, manager of biocrop communications.
"We haven't made any submission. We are still working on it. After we submit our application to the Food Safety Commission, they will pass the application on to the Agriculture and Health Ministries for food, feed and environmental approval," said Sakamoto.