Japan resumes wheat imports

Washington growers particularly relieved

Japan has lifted its import restrictions and will again buy wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest, a boon to farmers now harvesting this year’s grain crop.

Japan is arguably the most important customer of American wheat. Last year it bought about $1 billion worth of wheat, much of it the soft white variety grown across Washington. Japan suspended purchases in May after genetically modified wheat was found in an Oregon field.

Washington growers and lawmakers lauded the decision after weeks of assuring foreign markets the Oregon discovery was an anomaly and not indicative of U.S. exports.

“That’s a huge announcement for sure,” said Eric Maier, a Ritzville wheat grower and legislative chairman for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. “That’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

Maier was harvesting Tuesday evening when he heard the news. Farmers in the area will have more certainty about their crop for next year as they enter the fall seeding season, he said.

According to translated remarks the Oregon Wheat Commission provided from Japan’s minister of agriculture, Japan will begin to accept U.S. Western wheat again on Thursday and soft white on Aug. 7. Sources in the wheat industry said Tuesday that Japan had tendered a purchase of 90,000 metric tons of Western wheat to leave Pacific Northwest ports within the week.

The USDA on Tuesday confirmed Japan’s resumption of wheat imports. Japan will test U.S. imports for genetically modified wheat for an undisclosed period of time.

After the discovery of the modified strains, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, sent a letter to Kevin Shea, acting director of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the federal agency in charge of investigating the wheat’s source, urging a swift probe that wouldn’t delay wheat exports for an extended period.

On Tuesday, McMorris Rodgers praised Japan’s decision.

“The Pacific Northwest provides reliable, high-quality wheat and I am glad that Japan, a key trading partner, will resume its purchase of wheat from the U.S.,” she said in a statement.

Agriculture Department officials have said the modified wheat discovered in the Oregon field is the same strain as a genetically modified wheat that was designed to be herbicide-resistant and was legally tested by seed giant Monsanto a decade ago but never approved.

Most of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are already modified or genetically altered to include certain traits, often resistance to herbicides or pesticides. But the country’s wheat crop is not, as many wheat farmers have shown reluctance to use genetically engineered seeds since their product is usually consumed directly. Much of the corn and soybean crop is used as feed for livestock.

The USDA has said the wheat would be safe to eat if consumed. But American consumers, like many consumers in Europe and Asia, have shown an increasing interest in avoiding genetically modified foods.

There has been little evidence to show that foods grown from engineered seeds are less safe than their conventional counterparts. But Washington voters this fall will vote on a state ballot measure mandating labeling for genetically modified foods.

The Associated Press and Spokesman-Review writers Kip Hill and John Stucke contributed to this report.

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