With the news that Japan is once again accepting imports of U.S. wheat, the current crisis for farmers has passed; but the episode still exposes the risks to our food future posed by genetically modified seed.
A number of Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea, cut off imports of wheat grown in the U.S. northwest after an Oregon farmer found wheat plants that wouldn't die after being sprayed with Monsanto's (NYSE:MON) powerful herbicide Roundup. Testing revealed it was a strain of wheat seed that had been experimentally modified by the chemicals giant under USDA supervision years before, and should either have been destroyed, or locked up tight in the regulatory agency's vaults. That it had apparently escaped into the wild set off alarm bells globally, and panic among farmers.
Because wheat is typically ingested directly by humans, unlike corn or other crops that are also used for feed and other purposes, farmers have been reluctant to plant -- and consumers wary of buying -- the genetically modified grain. While there's no GM wheat grown anywhere, lab-altered seed accounts for 86% of the country's corn supply, more than 90% of our soy beans, and a major portion of our sugar beets. Half the country's sugar supply comes from sugar beets, and 95% of the seeds used are from Monsanto.
Between Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta, the three companies control 53% of the world's seed production, and when you add in Bayer and Dow Chemical to the GM seed mix, their global control of the food supply is near complete.
Thus, a lab-altered strain appearing in a U.S. wheat field in a region whose crops are raised primarily for export had serious implications. Yet, it's still unknown how the seed strain escaped supposedly secure government facilities in Colorado and made its way to an Oregon wheat field. It suggests that, while this crisis has past, a future calamity is still possible.
Japan is one of the most important export markets for U.S. wheat, purchasing about $1 billion worth of the grain last year. They were already casting about, looking to buy wheat from other sources last month, the first time in 53 years that's happened. Its decision to resume purchasing from us is a relief to farmers in the middle of their harvest, and for those planning their plantings for next year.
Despite assurances that genetically modified crops are safe, there is growing reluctance among consumers about actually eating them. It's one of the primary reasons the seed giants are strenuously opposed to GM labeling laws. They understand that, given a choice between GM foods and unaltered ones, consumers would choose the latter.
Our wheat exports may be safe for now, despite the scare given us by Monsanto's experiments; but that's only until the next episode occurs, one we were assured couldn't happen even once.
Fool contributor Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.