July 7, 2008

U.S. Shift to GM Crops Hits Home

By The Yomiuri Shimbun

Jul. 4--TOKYO -- In Maumee Plain in Ohio, in the Corn Belt of the U.S. Midwest, Jeff Goetz pointed to a vast field of soybeans stretching out before him.

"Until last year, non-genetically modified soybeans were grown here," said Goetz, marketing director of The Andersons Inc., an Ohio-based company that collects and sells grain. "But since the beginning of this year, genetically modified soybeans have replaced ordinary soybeans."

This change in crops grown in the fields of the United States -- the largest exporter of soybeans to Japan -- could have repercussions on Japanese dining tables.

Japanese foodmakers are struggling to secure enough ordinary soybeans as food prices soar and U.S. farmers increasingly turn to GM soybeans. The surging prices enable farmers to rake in profits even with GM soybeans, which used to be less profitable than non-GM soybeans.

While non-GM soybeans take more time and manpower to grow, genetically modified soybeans are easier to grow and yield larger crops.

Major Japanese trading houses have not been able to procure all the soybeans they project they will need to meet demand next year. But because many Japanese consumers remain fearful about GM foodstuffs, foodmakers are uneasy about switching to these soybeans.

Since the commercial cultivation of GM produce began in 1996, the proportion of non-GM soybeans has declined every year, with the figure reportedly sinking to about 10 percent of total soybean production this year.

Joe Needham, vice president of The Andersons, said GM soybeans have the double advantage of being easier to cultivate and producing higher yields.

"With prices soaring, farmers are reluctant to grow non-GM soybeans that require much more manpower to cultivate," he said.

Allen Limes, 65, has switched to growing GM soybeans, but not just for financial reasons. Limes said it had become physically impossible for him to grow ordinary soybeans, which need constant care and attention.

"Genetically modified soybeans look the same and taste the same. There are no food safety problems with them," he said.

Japanese trading houses are paying premiums ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent for ordinary soybeans. A trading house executive said even if his company raised the amount it is prepared to pay in line with soaring grain prices, securing the volume of non-GM soybeans it needs had become increasingly difficult.

In a regular year, trading houses would already have concluded contracts for crops to be harvested in autumn for distribution next year. However, this year, Japan's five major trading houses have only secured 80 percent to 95 percent of their projected needs. Only about 80 percent of the country's overall demand for soybeans for consumption next year is thought to have been secured.

Soybeans are not the only vegetable causing headaches--trading houses also are scrambling to procure corn that has not been genetically modified.

Non-GM corn still makes up 27 percent of the total corn acreage in the United States, relatively high compared with the corresponding figure of 9 percent for ordinary soybeans. However, corn cross-pollinates quite easily, so it is very tricky to keep both types untainted by the other as wind-blown pollen sweeps over the corn-growing areas.

Some experts have suggested the quantity of non-GM corn has fallen rapidly.

Japan needs about 1 million tons of soybeans to make miso paste and soy sauce products. Almost all of the about 800,000 tons of these soybeans that are imported, mainly from the United States, are not GM beans.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has been examining whether GM foodstuffs contain harmful substances. The production or importation of foodstuffs that fail to meet ministry standards is banned.

Eighty-eight types of GM foodstuffs, including corn and potato, have passed the ministry's criteria. GM soybeans are already being used to make a variety of food products, including cooking oil.

But in a 2004 survey by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, 66 percent of respondents said they felt uneasy eating GM foodstuffs. This was a figure that foodmakers could ill afford to ignore.

Junji Ito, executive manager of Aichi Prefecture-based miso paste maker Marusanai Co., said his company has resisted using GM soybeans because of consumer concerns about GM foodstuffs.

Marusanai has secured about 20,000 tons of soybeans for use this year, but the price has jumped to 2.5 times from last year's level.

Nagano Prefecture-based Hanamaruki Foods Co. has started tapping new suppliers in South American countries such as Bolivia.

"I hope we can have stable imports within the next five years," Hanamaruki Vice President Hiroyoshi Okamoto said.

But ensuring sufficient supplies of ordinary soybeans remains a serious problem for small and midsize foodmakers.

One long-established soy sauce maker in Osaka Prefecture said it might have to use GM soybeans in the future.

An official of a soy sauce maker in Aichi Prefecture said the company was waiting for the anti-GM food dam to crack.

"I hope major makers will take the initiative in leading the entire soy sauce industry toward the use of genetically modified soybeans," the official said.

By Sachio Nikaido, Toshio Kawamura and Hiroshi Ikematsu


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