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Consumer is king in Japan

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Monday, Sept. 8, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- WASHINGTON -- Japanese flour millers don't want Roundup Ready wheat, a type of hard red spring wheat Monsanto Corporation has genetically engineered to resist glyphosate herbicide (trademarked as Roundup), Tsutomu Shigeta, executive director of Japan's Flour Millers Association, told reporters here today.

"If GM [genetically modified] wheat is commercialized, it has the potential to collapse the U.S. wheat market in Japan," he said through an interpreter.

Representatives from the Association yesterday began their one-week U.S. tour with two goals. One, they want to collect information on crop conditions at the Department of Agriculture and in North Dakota and Oregon. Two, the millers want to gauge the progress toward U.S. and Canadian governmental approval for Monsanto to sell its patented seed to farmers. U.S. Wheat Associates, the organization that promotes American wheat abroad, is sponsoring the tour in cooperation with the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.

"If GM hard red spring wheat is commercialized, it would be almost impossible to buy conventional hard red spring wheat from the same growing region, so we would have to go to other places," Shigeta said. The companies that make up the Flour Millers Association account for 90 percent of the volume of wheat consumed in Japan, which is the number one customer for U.S. wheat. Japan bought about 2.5 million metric tons of American wheat, or about 53 percent of its total purchases, in the marketing year that ended March 31, 2003, according to U.S. Wheat Associates.

The big flour milling companies in Japan are taking this position because of consumer sentiment. A national government survey completed three or four months ago revealed that two-thirds of consumers don't want to eat food containing genetically modified organisms, Shigeta said.

"The reason why the millers association is rejecting GM wheat is a business matter," he said. "We don't discuss whether it's safe or not. It makes no sense economically to produce two loaves of bread, one [with conventional wheat] for the two thirds of consumers who don't want GM wheat and one [with biotech grain] for the those who would eat such wheat." In the event Japan's government approves Monsanto's wheat, it would have to be labeled. If genetically modified ingredients make up 5 percent or more of a food product, the product must be labeled as such. Even with governmental approval, the millers would still reject transgenic wheat, however.

In the event Japan's wheat buyers had a difficult time getting non-genetically engineered wheat from the United States, they could look to Eastern Europe or the Black Sea region, among other places. Or, they could drop wheat from the menu.

"Please don't underestimate the fact that Japanese consumers prefer rice," which came from Korea 2,300 years ago, Shigeta said. Wheat and bread gained widespread popularity in Japan 50 years ago, following World War II.

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