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Published June 10, 2013, 09:13 AM

Eye on the buyers

US wheat industry worries about response to GMO controversy

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Like just about everyone else involved in the U.S. wheat industry, Jim Peterson has many questions and few answers about the genetically modified (GMO) wheat found in an Oregon field.

But Peterson, the veteran marketing director of the North Dakota Wheat Commission, says he’s sure of two things:

•His industry is determined to retain the trust of its customers.

•His industry needs to educate its customers that a zero-tolerance policy toward GMO wheat may not be feasible financially.

“One of the main areas the U.S. (wheat) industry is working on is developing some level of tolerance. Zero tolerance can be very costly,” he says.

With a zero-tolerance policy, even minimal traces of a genetically modified organism aren’t allowed in food shipments.

In late May, unapproved GMO wheat was found in a single Oregon field of soft white wheat. No one knows how it got there or whether GMO wheat got into the food supply or grain shipments.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is investigating.

The discovery and ongoing investigation intensified attention on GMO wheat. The U.S. wheat industry stresses that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reviewed the wheat in 2004 and found no safety problems with it. That doesn’t reassure GMO critics, including some foreign buyers.

Japan has said it won’t buy U.S. soft white wheat until the U.S. investigation into the unauthorized GMO wheat is concluded.

Soft white, hard red spring

Most of the soft white wheat grown in Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest is exported to Southeast Asia.

Typically, exported soft white wheat is used for Asian noodles, Peterson says.

Hard red spring wheat, of which North Dakota is the leading U.S. producer, typically is used to make bread or to blend with other wheat to upgrade protein content or protein quality, he says.

So far, concern and uncertainty about soft white wheat haven’t had any discernible impact on hard red spring wheat prices, Peterson says.

“It’s planting delays — rain and cool temperatures — that have been affecting hard red spring prices,” he says.

Nor has he seen an impact from the Oregon GMO wheat controversy on the price of durum, of which North Dakota also is the nation’s leading producer. Durum is used to make pasta.

The issue of GMO wheat came up recently when a group of Japanese millers visited North Dakota. The millers said that, while they don’t have a concern themselves, their customers back home do, Peterson says.

“We told them that USDA says there’s no evidence to indicate the material is unsafe or poses any health risk,” Peterson says.

“Granted, that doesn’t address the concerns of their customers. Until their customers are willing to accept it, we need to appreciate those market risks and concerns,” Peterson says.

Officials with Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Wheat Associates, which develops export markets for American wheat, referred Agweek’s questions to Peterson.

The organization says on its website that it’s confident “U.S., wheat, wheat flour and wheat foods remain safe, wholesome and nutritious for people around the world.”

Farmers’ views differ

The issue was further complicated on June 3, when a Kansas farmer filed a civil lawsuit against Monsanto, alleging “gross negligence.”

Monsanto worked with Roundup Ready wheat from 1997 until ending the work in 2004 because of lack of commercial opportunities and to focus on other crops. The company reentered the wheat business in 2009 and now has a herbicide-tolerant wheat in its research and development pipeline, according to the company website.

The company, in responding to the Kansas farmer’s lawsuit, called it “a wild swing that is unlikely to connect,” according to published reports.

Walter Miller, an Olive, Mont., rancher and wheat producer, is among the opponents of GMO wheat.

“We know our customers don’t want GM wheat and that even the hint of it in Montana fields would threaten our export market because they will not buy any wheat from a country where GM wheat is grown,” he says in a news release.

Miller is president of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a Montana conservation and family resource group.

In any case, the APHIS investigation, with which Monsanto officials say they’re cooperating, has many questions to answer.

One of the biggest is how the wheat got into the Oregon field. Monsanto officials said June 5 that it likely was the result of an accident or possibly tampering.

For more information on Monsanto’s position on GMO wheat, go to www.monsanto.com/gmwheat.

To learn more about the APHIS investigation, go to www.aphis.usda.gov/ stakeholders.

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