US wheat exporters hope GMO find won't hurt sales to Japan, South Korea

By Bill Tomson

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 4, 2016 - The U.S. Wheat Associates is hopeful there will be no business lost and only minor trade delays after a Washington state farmer found 22 unapproved genetically modified plants growing in a field last week, a USW spokesman said.

USDA officials confirmed that Japan and South Korea have suspended new purchases of U.S. wheat after the discovery, but USW spokesman Steve Mercer said Thursday that U.S. farmers likely won't lose any sales.

Once the countries are ready to apply a new testing protocol to recently arrived and incoming U.S. wheat, purchases should resume on a normal pace, Mercer said.

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South Korea has already received new testing materials from USDA and likely began using them on Wednesday. The country will not release stored U.S. wheat to local millers until the grain has been tested to make sure there are no traces of the experimental Monsanto wheat that should not have been growing on the commercial farm in Washington.

Mercer said that USW expects the testing process in South Korea to be quick and that it will not turn up any positive results for genetic engineering.

South Korea still hasn't scheduled its August wheat tender.

“We hope that there's not going to be any disruption at all,” Mercer said. “They have a tender coming up - they tender about once a month - so we'll see.”

But Japan is taking longer, Mercer said. That's because the country wants to customize the testing protocols that were sent there by Monsanto and USDA.

“There may be temporary suspension of domestic distribution of Western white that is already in-store Japan,” USW said in a statement. “The materials needed to create the test assay are in Japan and it should only take two to three weeks for (Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) to implement the testing. As we expect the testing will detect no GM wheat, the results will end the suspension very soon after it starts testing.”

Japan, Mercer said, is mostly concerned with white wheat - a mixture of soft white and club wheat - that is grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Japan bought hard red winter and hard red spring wheat in a tender that concluded last night, but there was no purchase of white wheat, he said. Japan will likely hold three more tenders this month and it's unclear if any of them will seek white wheat.

That's OK, though, Mercer said, because Japan isn't likely to go anywhere else for that white wheat.

“Australia has white wheat, but it's not the same,” he said. “The protein content in our Western white … is perfect for sponge cake and other real popular cakes in Japan, so it's really the only source they have.”

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Meanwhile, USDA officials are trying to figure out how the experimental genetically engineered wheat sprouted up on the Washington farm. The last time the field in question was planted was in the spring of 2015 There is no evidence that the farmer's land was ever used in a Monsanto field trial, a U.S. government official told Agri-Pulse, but the investigation is ongoing.

“There are no genetically engineered … wheat varieties for sale or in commercial production in the United States at this time, as (USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) has not deregulated any GE wheat varieties,” the agency said in a statement released this week."

This is the third discovery of unapproved wheat in three years. The first case was in 2013 in Oregon, which also resulted in South Korea and Japan suspending purchases of U.S. wheat. More unapproved wheat was found in Montana in 2014.

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