While north Dakota legislators recently debated the prose and cons of restricting the production of biotech wheat in this state, the chairman of the North Dakota Wheat Commission was in Japan discussing the market implications of commercializing biotech wheat.
Alan Lee, a Berthold wheat grower, was one of five U.S. wheat industry representatives who traveled to Japan on April 15-20 to meet with representatives of the Japanese Food Agency and leading milling companies.
Discussions with the Japanese industry leaders reinforced the cautious and conditional approach that has been endorsed by U.S. Wheat has been endorsed by U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers with regard to the introduction of biotech wheat.
"The message was clear that Japanese consumers are not ready for biotech wheat," Lee said.
Japanese milling industry leaders told the U.S. team that they would purchase wheat from U.S. competitors if in the future the U.S. cannot ensure that Japan will receive biotech-free wheat. They said there was also the possibility that rice consumption could increase at wheat's expense.
"We emphasized to the Japanese officials and milling executives that customers come first," Lee said. "We explained that our mission was not to sell them on biotechnology, but instead to listen to their concerns."
The U.S. team stressed that no wheat varieties derived from biotechnology are expected to be commercialized in the U.S. until 2003 to 2005.
The Japanese industry leaders indicated they don't oppose biotechnology, per se - in fact, many recognize its potential.
"All of the industry leaders urged us to first work towards getting the release of new products derived from biotechnology that have consumer and processing benefits," Lee said. "This should help in gaining consumer acceptance."
Japan enacted a new law April 1 requiring that any foods containing genetically modified products be labeled as such. Japanese consumers have a high level of distrust in genetically modified products as a result of recent food safety issues in the country.
The U.S. delegation found that the Japanese millers were very aware of the legislation that had been proposed in North Dakota to restrict the production of biotech wheat.
Lee said that at the time of his visit, the Japanese officials thought the restrictions had been approved. Instead, the North Dakota House of Representatives concurred with the Senate version of the bill while the team was in Japan. The bill now calls only for a possible study of issues surrounding biotechnology.
The Japanese were appreciative of the visit by U.S. officials in advance of the potential release of biotech wheat and of the candid discussions that took place.
The team outlined the USWNAWG position statement on biotechnology, as well as the actions that the national wheat organizations are taking in anticipation of the eventual commercialization of biotech wheat.
USW and NAWG are urging technology providers to obtain international regulatory approval and to ensure customer acceptance prior to commercializing biotech wheat.
They are also requesting that an identity preserved (IP) or closed loop system be developed to prevent the commingling of biotech and non-biotech wheat.
There is skepticism about the reliability of an IP system, but the Japanese millers agreed to work with a U.S. industry advisory committee to review a system being proposed by Monsanto. The company is preparing for the launch of "Roundup Ready" wheat, which is resistant to its leading herbicide.
Even with a viable IP system, Japanese millers emphasized that there wheat import costs would likely increase because of new mandated labeling and testing requirements. Flour millers expressed very strong objections to absorbing any increased costs.
|Copyright © 2004