With South Korea back in the market for U.S. western white wheat, only Japan continues to suspend new orders over concerns of unapproved genetically modified product found growing in an Eastern Oregon field.
But officials with U.S. Wheat Associates are cautiously optimistic the Japanese will follow suit as early as next month, welcoming back the industry’s top importer of soft white wheat from the Pacific Northwest.
Spokesman Steve Mercer said the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has tested 1.2 million metric tons of U.S. wheat for GMO material, with all results so far coming back negative. Testing included samples from shipments received through May, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed the presence of “Roundup Ready” wheat on a single Oregon farm.
In another encouraging sign, Japan last week purchased more than 24,000 metric tons of club wheat — a subclass of western white wheat also grown primarily in Washington and Oregon.
“I think it’s a good indication they’re trying to find a way to become comfortable enough to resume (western white) purchases,” Mercer said. “I think it will get to that point.”
Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all temporarily halted new tenders of U.S. soft white wheat after an unidentified farmer in northeast Oregon discovered wheat plants resistant to the herbicide glyphosate scattered in his 130-acre fallow field. The variety, engineered by Monsanto Co., was field tested from 1998-2005 in 16 states, including Oregon, but never approved for commercial production.
Oregon exports 85-90 percent of its wheat, primarily to Asian markets that have made it clear they do not want genetically modified food. The crop was valued at $472 million in 2012.
South Korea and Taiwan have already resumed regular imports. Last year, Japan imported nearly 39 million bushels of soft white wheat, South Korea imported approximately 26.3 million bushels and Taiwan imported nearly 4.8 million bushels.
Japan typically buys tenders for western white wheat, which contains a minimum of 10 percent club wheat and the rest soft white wheat, to use in making sponge cakes, Mercer said. The ministry is not yet ready to resume those orders while USDA is still investigating the GMO case.
“There’s so many variables,” Mercer said. “We’re working very hard to move in that direction. It’s encouraging, and we’re still hopeful.”
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service sent out 18 investigators to interview farmers and test samples across the region. Spokesman Ed Curlett said the investigation is ongoing, and they have no evidence of genetically modified wheat outside of the one incident.
Steve Wirsching, vice president and director of U.S. Wheat Associates’ West Coast office in Portland, said Japan’s club wheat tender is part of the confidence-building process, though their goal is to resume western white wheat purchases.
“We continue to have a very open and active dialogue with them, as well as to assure them this is an isolated incident to one small field in one farm in the Pacific Northwest,” Wirsching said in a previous interview with the East Oregonian.
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-564-4547.a
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.