TOKYO -- Cultivation of genetically modified crops looks to have hit a peak in the U.S. as a soft international grain market pushes farmers to grow more traditional varieties in exchange for special premiums.
GM crops accounted for 94% of U.S. soybean cultivation by area in the 2015-16 growing season, unchanged from a year earlier, the Department of Agriculture reported last July. That share for corn fell from 93% to 92%. "The premiums paid for non-GM products have become more appealing amid a soft crop market," explained a representative for general trading house Kanematsu.
Growing and harvesting non-GM crops takes more time and effort than is required by their genetically engineered cousins. Farmers putting their non-GM products on the Chicago commodities market can thus receive premiums, which have risen in recent years. Those for North American soybeans are typically in the mid-$2 level per bushel, four times the level from 10 years ago.
A number of small soybean farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere have made the switch from GM to non-GM crops to take advantage of premium programs, Kanematsu reports. There is a good deal of interest as well in cultivating non-GM corn during the 2016 season, said Japan's National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, or Zen-Noh. Some farmers also eschew GM crops out of resistance to using proprietary seeds from large agricultural companies.
General traders anticipate growing demand for non-GM products as well. Mitsui & Co. last year took a 50% stake in a U.S. grain handler specializing in non-GM foods, expecting that market to grow 5-10% per year. Major U.S. grain producer Archer Daniels Midland announced in February it would invest in Harvest Innovations, which produces foods from non-GM soybeans. Legislation in the state of Vermont requiring GM foods be labeled as such, among other developments, has stirred broader discussions in the U.S. over labeling requirements designed to let consumers choose non-GM products.
Zen-Noh, which imports non-GM corn to Japan for use in animal feed, has teamed with a U.S. seed company to supply American farmers with the most advanced non-GM seeds. The federation will also expand the farmer education programs run by its U.S. subsidiary.
Yet despite rising output of non-GM crops, they likely "will be as hard to get ahold of as ever," President Junji Torigoe of tofu producer Sagamiya Foods said. Only a small portion of farmers have abandoned genetically modified crops, and associated premiums remain high. Japanese consumers' shunning of GM crops presents a challenge for buyers at domestic food manufacturers.