By RICHARD SMITH
For the Capital Press
TOKYO — Japan’s top agriculture official said today that his nation will resume the import of U.S. western white wheat.
Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Yoshimasa Hayashi told a July 30 press conference the purchases will take place Thursday.
The ministry stopped buying U.S. western white wheat May 30 after unauthorized genetically modified soft white wheat was found in a field in Oregon. The announcement sent the USDA scrambling to determine the source of the unauthorized wheat and injected an air of uncertainty into the region’s wheat industry as harvest approached. Western white wheat is a blend of soft white wheat and club wheat.
Japan and Mexico are the two largest importers of U.S. wheat. Most of the wheat grown in the Northwest is exported to Japan, South Korea and other overseas markets.
The Japanese ministry is the nation’s sole importer of wheat and resells it to millers.
Hayashi said inspectors from his ministry were dispatched to the U.S. to confirm findings from inspections by the U.S. government.
“We have confirmed that inspections (for presence of genetically modified wheat) will be implemented at the time of shipment,” he said.
Japan intends to tender this week for 90,000 metric tons of western white wheat, which may be a little larger than normal, said Steve Mercer, vice president of communications for U.S. Wheat Associates.
Japan typically gives the details of the tender on Tuesday and then tenders for wheat on Thursday. Grain traders respond to the tender. Information about the tender indicates the wheat must arrive before Oct. 31.
Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) occasionally buys soft white wheat for feed simultaneously, and that channel has also opened up again, Mercer said.
“The thoughtful, science-based approach to this that MAFF took is really encouraging for farmers,” Mercer said. “It was made out of caution but not out of emotion. I think that’s really important.”
“This is really good news,” said Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission.
Blake Rowe, Oregon Wheat CEO, said the announcement is the final piece to getting all of the markets back for U.S. wheat.
South Korea, the only other nation to stop buying U.S. soft white wheat, resumed its purchases several weeks ago.
Customers will continue to test U.S. wheat as a precaution, Rowe said.
Squires doesn’t expect that to delay business.
“They already test for all kinds of things,” he said. “Hopefully the time will come when they decide they don’t need to, but that will obviously be their decision.”
It’s hard to determine the cost of the two-month ban, they said.
“I don’t know how you’d put a number on that,” Squires said, noting the ban took place during a time period when Japan doesn’t traditionally buy much wheat.
“We probably have to wait until the end of the year to compare what they bought to what they bought last year,” Mercer said. “The answer will probably be known sooner if they definitely start to increase from what they would have normally bought.”
Japan apparently had sufficient supplies to get them through to October, and now is purchasing for later, Mercer said.
The industry is still awaiting a final investigation report from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). USDA public affairs specialist R. Andre Bell said he cannot speculate when the investigation will conclude. He declined to answer questions about USDA’s process and whether the agency has revisited sites, since they “fall within the scope of our ongoing investigation.”
“If there’s some explanation as to how it happened, obviously we need to know that,” Rowe said.
He recommended growers continue to be diligent in monitoring their fields until a cause is determined.
“I don’t expect to find anything, but I suggest everybody needs to be extra-vigilant to make sure the problem doesn’t come back,” Rowe said.
There’s no standard by which to judge the length of Japan’s ban, Rowe said, noting it varies from customer to customer. All the industry can do is work through it, he said, giving credit to an industry-wide effort.
“The wheat industry certainly has invested a lot through the years in their market relationships,” he said. “It’s for situations like this, that’s when those relationships come in really handy. I think our relationships have held up pretty well.”
“The standards MAFF has are exceptional, and growers have always met those standards,” Mercer said. “It’s just great that (news of the resumed purchases) comes at a time when they’re probably out on their combines thinking about this. To go forward with that important part of their year with this door opened back up, it’s a great gift.”
Capital Press reporter Matthew Weaver contributed to this story.