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Asian grain buyers could impose certification costs on non-biotech wheat producers

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Monday, Dec. 2, 2002 -- CropChoice commentary) -- Grain buyers in strategic Asian markets, including Japan and Korea, didn't offer up any big surprises in a recent U.S. Wheat Associates survey. A majority said they didn't want genetically engineered Hard Red Spring wheat and would shop other countries if U.S. farmers were to produce the wheat Monsanto designed to resist the Roundup herbicide. That could spell trouble for growers in Montana, which sends about 60 percent of its wheat crop to Asia.

Whether it's going there or to Europe, the other major market where biotech wheat is a non-starter, alternative suppliers do exist.

"If gmo wheat comes out, then I have to immediately find another supplier," says a major European grain buyer. "And that will not be a problem because I've been in Hungary and Ukraine doing preliminary arrangements. They and other wheat producing countries say, 'fine, let the USA produce gmo wheat. We'll take their markets.'"

Not so fast, though. Monsanto's very act of introducing Roundup Ready wheat in the United States (and Canada) could lead those Asian buying nations to impose policies with cost implications for all wheat producers.

If Roundup Ready wheat happens, 23 percent of the survey respondents said they would require certification of the genetic purity of Hard Red Spring wheat varieties, 24 percent would want assurances of the same in all U.S. wheat, and 20 percent would request certification from all wheat exporting countries.

That last answer is striking. It points out the lesson that farmers attempting to grow non-transgenic soybeans, corn, canola and cotton already have learned. It is they who bear the responsibility for keeping the billion-dollar Monsanto's technology out of their fields and harvests.

It'll be no different with wheat. Growers and processors everywhere "would have to figure out how to provide certificates, which means [genetic] testing of non-gmo varieties, which means costs," says Dawn Forsythe, director of public affairs for U.S. Wheat Associates.

Geographically isolated Australia could be the exception, she says. Were it to disallow transgenic wheat, including seeds, the country might get away with a one-time, universal certificate. Of course, that would give its growers a leg up on their counterparts elsewhere.

But there is no issue for the European grain buyer: "It is simple for the Aussies, Hungary and the Ukraine because they grow only non-gmo. So like Brazil [with soybeans] the country will guarantee it or they'll get an certificate from a laboratory that checks and guarantees the merchandise. In fact, they've already done that."

While it appears that supplying non-transgenic wheat might involve costs, it also seems that producers outside of North America are ready to step in should U.S. and Canadian farmers plant Roundup Ready wheat.