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Korean miller: 'Consumer is king'

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Friday, May 2, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- WASHINGTON -- "We don't want GMO wheat," said Hi Sang Lee, chairman of the Korea Flour Mills Industrial Association (KOFMIA), at a media breakfast that was part of the Association's U.S. goodwill mission.

The intention to boycott genetically modified (GMO) wheat that the Association, which represents nearly 100 percent of Korea's flour millers, announced three years ago still stands, said Dong Jin Chung, senior vice chairman of KOFMIA and president of the Daehan Flour Mills, Co.: "We don't openly talk about GM wheat because then the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) will start protesting, so we talk silently."

When and if the hard red spring wheat that Monsanto engineered to resist the glyphosate herbicide (Roundup) arrives, determing exactly what consumers would do is difficult. "I think consumers will boycott the whole wheat industry," Chung said. "Millers have no choice, consumers do. If the consumers don't accept GM wheat, then the millers won't. The consumer is king."

KOFMIA wouldn't deliberately shift to other wheat suppliers, such as Australia, Canada or the former republics of the former Soviet Union, but the cost of attempting to segregate conventional and biotech wheat could make U.S. wheat too expensive for the Korean market, said Lee, chairman of KOFMIA.

Koreans aren't wedded to wheat. Rice remains their staple; they eat a bit more than 180 pounds of rice per capita annually compared to about 70 pounds of wheat flour.

Even if the Korean government were to establish tolerance levels for Monsanto's Roundup Ready wheat, that doesn't mean processors and consumers would accept it. Take the case of corn. The Korean Food and Drug Administration approved (with labels) corn oil and syrup made from biotech varieties. Nonetheless, importers have gradually begun to shift to non-engineered corn from China and Brazil, said Il Woong Kim, president of the Shinhan Flour Mills, Co.

After the breakfast, Lee noted that, of the 20 farmers who met with the KOFMIA delegation in Great Falls, Mont. on Tuesday, all but one expressed opposition to transgenic wheat. Facts from U.S. Wheat Associates:

"During CY02, Korea imported a total of 2.37 MMT of milling wheat on arrival basis with U.S. wheat accounting for 1.26 MMT, or 53.2%. A year ago arrivals totaled 2.41 MMT and U.S. wheat accounted for 1.31 MMT or 54.5%. Australian wheat arrivals totaled 967,420 MT, or 40.8%, and Canadian wheat arrivals totaled 142,871 MT, or 6.0%. Wheat imports over the next few years will likely be around 2.4 to 2.5 MMT, with the U.S. market share expected to exceed 60%.

"In the meantime, feed wheat imports totaled 1.92 MMT during CY02 on a purchase basis, an increase of 39% from the previous year. There were no feed wheat imports from the U.S. It is hard to forecast feed wheat import quantity and origins into Korea as they depend on the availability of other types of feed-stuffs and price."--end--