INTERVIEW - Asia's sensitivity over GMO worries US soy trade
Author: Sambit Mohanty
U.S. farm trade, just recovering from last year's controversy surrounding its gene-spliced StarLink corn, is working hard to ensure that Asian buyers get exactly what they want - GMO or non-GMO products, said Corwin Fee, vice president and chairman of ASA's international marketing committee.
"On the issue of Roundup Ready soybeans, we are definitely concerned," Fee told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of a Southeast Asia Soy Buyers Conference.
"We are willing to work with them (Asian buyers) even though they have been approved for food. But once again, if it is still a customer preference not to involve them, there has to be a way of communication and a way to rectify the problem," he added.
Last month, Belgian scientists discovered gene fragments in Roundup Ready soybeans, grown from seed developed by biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. The soybeans are spliced with a bacterium to make them resistant to Roundup herbicide.
Although the European Commission has said it had no scientific evidence that these beans - which environmental group Greenpeace wants banned - posed a health risk, some Asian buyers are not completely convinced.
"South Korea has picked up a lot of concerns banished by the EU but we are willing to address that," Fee said.
He said currently the demand for non-GMO soybeans in Asia was more than GMO beans, which echoed views of some South Korean buying groups who have said they would be stepping up non-GMO bean purchases this year.
Fee said the relatively higher premiums on non-GMO beans had prompted him to cut down his own GMO soybeans production back in the U.S. and instead concentrate on producing more non-GMO beans.
"I as a farmer last year grew all Round Up Ready soybeans. This year, I have cut down on that. Probably it will be the lowest amount of Round Up ready beans I will be growing in several years," Fee said. "It is mainly profit-oriented."
Fee said the farm price of non-GMO beans was 30-35 cents a bushel, which was about 8-9 percent higher than GMO bean prices.
"In previous years, customers did not understand that it costs more to get these products (non-GMO beans). They have finally come to realise that," he said.
CHINA'S GMO RULES
Fee added that the latest set of rules announced by China on GMO had bogged down U.S. soybean sales to China to some extent.
"We are a little concerned about the regulations and laws that have been passed by China - that no one seems to have a clear understanding of," Fee said. "But we are working with them to get a better understanding of what exactly they want."
China was on a soybean buying spree in the first half of 2001, when imports rose 69.2 percent year-on-year to 5.97 million tonnes. Nearly three-quarters of it came from the United States.
China, U.S.'s biggest soybean buyer, announced the rules in early June but the rules fell short of implementation details which traders say are not expected until after October.
Asian trade sources say China has stepped up buying soybeans from South America recently.
"There a little bit of hesitancy, until we have a clear understanding of what exactly they (China) expect, before we send vast volumes of soybeans there," Fee said.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture, 68 percent of U.S. soybeans are genetically modified. Trade sources say about 90 percent of Argentine soybeans are genetically modified. Brazil has said its soybeans are GMO-free, but trade sources believe GMO soy has been planted in southern Brazilian states.