China has begun rejecting shiploads of American corn because of traces of an unapproved genetically modified corn showing up in shipments.
The country has gone from one of the top importers of U.S. corn to sourcing almost none of our corn since late last year, and the blame goes to a new genetically modified corn strain developed by Syngenta.
According to NPR’s The Salt, “This GMO contains a new version of a gene that protects the corn plant from certain insects. Problem is, this new gene isn’t yet approved in China, and Chinese officials didn’t appreciate it when traces of the new, as-yet-unapproved GMOs started showing up in boatloads of American grain.”
What China did import was large amounts of dried distillers grains with solubles—DDGS—which is a byproduct of corn ethanol. NPR reports that China was buying so much DDGS that it sent global grain prices spiking, which was a huge benefit to American farmers. China purchased $1.6 billion worth of DDGS in 2013.
And even once the contamination risk for the Syngenta corn strain was evident, China continued to approve imports—until last week. The country has now officially banned U.S. imports of DDGS, driving prices way down. NPR reports that this might cost American farmers, ethanol producers and traders, some $3 billion.
What’s worse, the ban is taking a toll on China as well. The country is growing so fast that it uses the DDGS to feed its rapidly expanding livestock sector.
Max Fisher, director of Economics for the NGFA, told NPR: “[China] replaced [the U.S. corn] with more expensive grains,” including barley from Australia. The ban has even been a boon to U.S. sorghum farmers, twisting the issue as corn farmers are struggling to rebound.
Now, the U.S. Grains Council has stepped in with a letter to Tom Vilsack, USDA Secretary. According to NPR, the letter urged Vilsack and the USDA’s “immediate, direct and personal intervention” on the issue. The council has asked that USDA approach China about ceasing what the council called “regulatory sabotage.”
The North American Export Grain Association has taken another approach, urging Syngenta to cease distribution of its genetically modified corn variety until global export markets embrace the commodity.
“They’re being a bad actor here,” Fisher said of Syngenta. “They’re making $40 million” selling the new corn varieties, “but it’s costing U.S. farmers $1 billion.”
But Syngenta says it won’t accept the blame: “We want to get technology into the hands of farmers as soon as possible,” said the company’s CEO, David Morgan, in a video posted on Syngenta’s website. “We can’t expect growers to wait indefinitely for access to technologies, based on what foreign governments decide to do.”
Even if China approved MIR 162, however, the ban might remain. That’s because Syngenta began selling yet another new new type of GMO corn this year, which also is not yet approved in China.
Syngenta has asked farmers to take that corn to specific grain processors, who will keep it from getting into export shipments. But Fisher thinks the new gene is likely to show up in exports. “Farmers are going to be farmers,” he says, and sell their grain through the usual channels.
corn image via Shutterstock