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China monitoring US probe of gene-altered Oregon wheat

By Joseph Boris in Washington | China Daily | Updated: 2013-06-04 11:27

A bumper harvest at home and relatively low importation from the United States will largely shield China from the discovery in Oregon of a wheat strain genetically modified to resist herbicide made by Monsanto Co.

On Monday, regulators in Japan confirmed their suspension of US imports of western-white wheat and feed wheat. The Republic of Korea has already increased inspections of incoming American wheat, while flour millers in the country said they would halt purchases until US officials had completed an investigation.

Elsewhere, the Taiwan Flour Mills Association said it wouldn't accept any wheat from Oregon and had asked its suppliers for assurances that future shipments are free of genetically modified wheat, Bloomberg News reported.

On Friday, after news of the Oregon discovery broke, Chinese officials said they would be monitoring the situation. The country's main food regulator, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, declined to comment on Monday when contacted by Dow Jones Newswires about a possible response to the Oregon discovery.

There is no US-approved mobile "test kit" for identifying genetically engineered wheat, but the US Department of Agriculture has said it's working to create one and hopes to have it ready this week.

Chinese importers have bought at least 1.5 million metric tons of US wheat this spring, continuing a surge from 2012 that reversed years of declining shipments. Chinese purchases in the year through June 2014 are projected to increase 21 percent to 3.5 million metric tons, according to the USDA. Australia and Canada are major wheat exporters to China, behind the US.

The US, the world's top producer, typically accounts for about a third of China's wheat imports, according to US Wheat Associates, an industry group.

Agriculture Minister Han Changfu forecast on Monday that China in 2013, barring serious natural disasters, will see its 10th straight bumper crop of summer grains, mostly wheat and early-season rice.

About 80 percent of summer grain crops have already been harvested in southwestern China, and most wheat is ripe in areas along the Yellow, Huaihe and Haihe rivers, Han said while touring a farm in central Henan province.

Summer crops typically account for about 20 percent of China's annual output of grain, while fall grain crops, mainly corn and rice, make up about 80 percent.

The USDA said last week that it was investigating the Oregon discovery but that the wheat in question had appeared only at one farm there. The agency said it didn't have any information about the GM grain having entered the commercial supply chain.

The strain of wheat was never approved for sale or consumption. The USDA, Monsanto and American growers associations have said the wheat poses no risk to human health. Missouri-based Monsanto added that the presence of the genetically modified trait in its Roundup Ready wheat is likely to be "very limited".

The company has said it was conducting its own investigation. Monsanto ended trials of the wheat, genetically engineered to resist Monsanto Roundup herbicide, in 2005 and never sold it commercially, mainly due to fierce opposition in many countries to GM foods.

China, like most other Asian countries, bans imports of gene-altered cereal and other grain-based foods intended for human consumption, but the country has hinted it may relax those prohibitions. Most corn and soybeans shipped from the US and South America for animal feed is genetically modified, however.

The global supply of high-quality wheat isn't enough to offset a steep decline in US imports, according to analysts and traders in Asia, even though wheat prices there are expected to rise in the near term due to the Oregon GM concerns and flooding in parts of Europe.

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