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Agriculture Chief Predicts Resumption of Japan Wheat Buys

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged Congress to pass an agriculture bill that includes food stamps as well as farm aid before current policy expires Sept. 30. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Japan, which stopped buying some U.S. wheat after a genetically modified variety was discovered in an Oregon field, may resume purchases as soon as next month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

“We’ve come a long way in terms of the Ministry of Agriculture in Japan to reassure them,” Vilsack said yesterday in an interview with Peter Cook on Bloomberg Television’s “Capitol Gains” to air July 28. “I think that hopefully they’re getting their questions answered and that sometime, perhaps as early as August, we would see a resumption.”

Monsanto Co., which developed the wheat, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are investigating how a gene-altered plant that hasn’t been approved for commercial use was found on an Oregon farm eight years after nationwide field tests ended. After the USDA’s May 29 announcement, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan suspended some U.S. wheat purchases.

South Korea and Taiwan have since resumed buying, and Japanese officials visited the U.S. last week to discuss new sales. Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, reported $13.5 billion in 2012 sales, led by corn and other crops genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup, the world’s best-selling herbicide. Corn accounted for 43 percent of last year’s sales.

The experimental wheat, designed to survive the weedkiller, may have gotten into an Oregon field by an “accidental or purposeful” act, Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley said last month.

Contamination Limits

Vilsack declined to comment on possible causes of the contamination.

“I think it’s better that we let the investigation run its course and find out at the end of that process what we know,” he said. “We’re very sure it doesn’t pose a safety threat to the food supply.”

Separately, Vilsack urged Congress to pass an agriculture bill that includes food stamps as well as farm aid before provisions of the current law begin to expire Sept. 30.

The Senate last month passed a plan with both elements at a cost of more than $95 billion a year. The House of Representatives this month approved a package without nutrition aid to poor families. Without farm and food aid together, farm-policy legislation is unlikely to win support needed to pass both houses of Congress.

“By having the food assistance programs in the bill, you basically have a good message point to suburban and urban legislators who may not fully understand what agriculture contributes to their constituents,” Vilsack said. “You’re going to get that coalition of members in Congress to be able to pass a bill.’

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