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7-Business: U.S. alfalfa growers fear loss of Japanese market



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TITLE:  Alfalfa growers fear loss of Japanese market
SOURCE: Yakima Herald - Republic, USA. by Leah Beth Ward
        http://www.yakima-herald.com/?storyid=283999324440843
DATE:   14 Aug 2005

------------------- archive: http://www.genet-info.org/ -------------------


Alfalfa growers fear loss of Japanese market

MATTAWA -- Shiro Masuoka was clear about two matters on a recent visit to
Eckenberg Farms, a sprawling alfalfa operation hidden in these remote
Columbia Basin hills.

The Tokyo businessman, a wholesale distributor of alfalfa to the dairy
and cattle industries in Japan, pronounced Eckenberg's hay "the finest in
the world."

But if Eckenberg or any other grower in the state decides to plant a new
genetically altered alfalfa about to hit seed stores, Masuoka said he'd
have to buy elsewhere, probably in Canada or Australia.

"I will not import GMO," he said through an interpreter, referring to
genetically modified organism, the term for bioengineered foods. "The
customer will not buy it."

Masuoka's words didn't surprise Bob Eckenberg, president of the 42-year-
old family business, but they were chilling nonetheless. Eckenberg Farms
-- a $20-million-a-year business with 100 employees -- is 99 percent
dependent on exports to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

So agricultural giant Monsanto's plan to introduce GMO alfalfa seed in
time for spring planting has the state's alfalfa exporters on edge.

Meanwhile, alfalfa farmers in other states who don't sell to Japan
welcome the new seed's aversion to weeds. Called Roundup Ready alfalfa,
the seed grows a crop that can withstand repeated applications of
Monsanto's herbicide Roundup, killing marauders like pigweed without
hurting the alfalfa.

But alfalfa farmers who do export point out that because the plant is
pollinated by bees, GMO alfalfa can contaminate fields grown from
unaltered seed. Eckenberg said that possibility alone could be enough for
Japan to cut off imports from the state, and he doesn't want to take a
chance at finding out.

"Monsanto won't pay the price," Eckenberg said. "We will."


Huge export market at stake

Eckenberg Farms is hardly alone. Asian exports account for 40 percent of
the income from the state's hay crop for a value of nearly $150 million.

In turn, a cluster of hay shipping companies headquartered in Ellensburg
is similarly dependent on Japan. And trucks routinely traverse Interstate
90 headed for the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, where workers load some
50,000 40-foot containers annually for export.

No other state shares Washington's exposure to an Asian backlash against
GMO alfalfa. Most of the alfalfa grown in the United States is sold and
consumed here at dairies and feedlots.

Citing the stakes, the Washington State Hay Growers Association wants
Monsanto to make an exception and postpone sales of the GMO seed here for
at least one year, or until Japanese consumers drop their resistance.

Monsanto, while expressing sympathy for the exporters, said it will not
change its plan to launch the product in the state after winning approval
from the Japanese government, which is expected before the end of the
year, according to company spokeswoman Jennifer Garrett.

The company said alfalfa exporters should be comforted by a new test for
GMO alfalfa that will allow them to certify their product is free of any
molecular tinkering. Exporters respond that the test has yet to be
independently verified, and they don't feel the industry should have to
bear the cost of testing.


Consumer reaction unpredictable

Monsanto and exporters disagree strongly over the likely reaction of
Japanese consumers. Garrett said the company believes Japanese consumer
acceptance will follow government approval, and said dairies there
already are using its other GMO products, such as Roundup Ready corn, in
dairy feed.

"The information we have is that most Japanese dairymen will use Roundup
Ready alfalfa," Garrett said.

But Chep Gauntt, president of the Kennewick-based Hay Growers
Association, said Monsanto overestimates the power of the Japanese government.

"It's the Japanese dairyman or feeder we have to make happy. If anybody
doesn't believe that, just look at BSE," Gauntt said, referring to
Japan's swift action to close its markets to U.S. beef after a case of
mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was found in a Mabton
dairy cow in late 2003.

"Japan shut the door literally in hours, and the door is still not open,"
he said.


Food genetics hotly debated

Opposition to genetically altered foods and crops is widespread in Europe
and Japan, but in the United States skepticism largely has been confined
to the organic food movement and some consumer groups. They warn that the
practice of introducing new traits into seed -- fundamentally changing a
crop's chemical composition -- can harm human nutrition and health. Long-
term studies are needed to determine the safety of GMO food, they argue.

Roundup Ready alfalfa received approval from the U.S. Department of
Agriculture last month after about one year of regulatory review,
according to Garrett of Monsanto. The Environmental Protection Agency and
the Food and Drug Administration also have signed off on the
bioengineered product, though consumer groups say those reviews aren't
rigorous enough.

Those approvals apply only to the United States. Growers who use Roundup
Ready alfalfa must agree to use it only for domestic purposes, Garrett
said, calling such agreements another layer of protection for exporters.

"It will not be exported, so there's a low risk there would be any
mistakes," Garrett said.


Mixed reviews from producers

Not all hay exporters are skeptical of Roundup Ready alfalfa. Kittitas
County timothy grower Bill Lowe would like to try the alfalfa as a way of
clearing some of his fields of bluegrass. His Japanese customers, who buy
timothy for horses, don't like the bluegrass, even though the horses do.

"If we could raise alfalfa for two years and spray with Roundup, which is
cheaper, we could clean up the blue-grass problem," Lowe said.

But companies like Anderson Hay & Grain, which ships alfalfa and timothy
to Asia, want more time to reassure the Japanese that their milk won't be
hurt by cows fed GMO alfalfa.

"Our conversations with Monsanto have been firm. We don't want to see any
(GMO alfalfa) in this market until there's acceptance in Japan," said
Mark Anderson, president of the Ellensburg-based company.

With 350 hay suppliers in 10 Western states, Anderson is one of the
largest hay shippers on the West Coast. Its business is 90 percent
dependent on Asian exports, with alfalfa representing the single-largest
volume crop.


Chemical alarm sounded in 1990s

Brent Evans shudders when he recalls another Washington state crop's
brush with the wary Japanese consumer.

Japan had just opened its borders to U.S. apples in late 1994, after 21
years of delicate trade talks, when a Japanese consumer group began
testing for chemical residues. In early 1995, the consumer group found
traces of Thiabendazole, or TBZ, used as a post-harvest protection on
many kinds of stored fruit.

"All of a sudden you saw headlines like 'U.S. apples drenched in
chemicals,' " recalled Evans, who at the time was the Asia regional
director for the Washington Apple Commission.

It didn't matter that the Japanese also used TBZ on their own fruit, or
that the amount found was well below what the Japanese government would
tolerate.

"Product was pulled and there were huge losses overnight," he said.

Evans, who has lived in Japan and speaks the language, said he does not
think Monsanto understands the power of Japanese consumer groups in that
country to decide food-safety issues or their mistrust of GMO products.
He said consumers have a hair-trigger mentality about food safety that
can border on the irrational.

"It would not be a small stretch for someone to say, 'Oh, my baby is
drinking GMO milk.' That would be the kiss of death," he said.

Yoshiaki Samejima, who works for the food and agriculture department of
Sojitz Corp., with U.S. operations in Portland, said Japanese consumers
do not buy or consume any GMO products. In fact, he said, consumers have
insisted that soybean products such as tofu and miso carry a GMO-free label.

Masuoka, the Tokyo importer, said the fact that U.S. agencies have
approved Roundup Ready alfalfa means little.

"There has not been enough time for us to judge its safety," he said.
"How can you prove it's safe?"


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