Across Minnesota, grain buyers and sellers have been warning farmers this spring to be wary about planting Monsanto’s latest biotech soybean.
The product was launched in U.S. and Canadian markets for the first time this year, but it has not been approved yet for sale in the European Union. Traders and others say that uncertainty, if not resolved, will cause price declines, confusion and disruption in international trade.
“We’re making our farmers aware of the situation,” said David Kee, research director of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. “We do not encourage the planting of this because of the risk involved.”
The product in question is Roundup Ready 2 Xtend, a genetically modified soybean seed that is resisistant to a pair of herbicides called glyphosate and dicamba.
It was developed because weeds have become resistant to Roundup Ready varieties with traits that used glyphosate alone.
The genetic modifications in the new seed allow both pesticides to be used without harming the soybeans.
“We could use the technology in soybeans readily,” Kee said. “We just want to make sure it’s completely legal and no risk to our market.”
The reason it’s a risk is because unapproved soybeans and approved soybeans often get mixed together in grain elevators, unit trains or ships when they’re exported, and it’s difficult and expensive for grain buyers and sellers to try to keep them separate.
“At the grain elevator level it makes it very challenging because when we’re buying soybeans from the producers, we have no idea what market it’s going to,” said Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association. “So we could very easily end up shipping to the European market and then potentially be refused to enter that market.”
The EU is the second-largest foreign market for U.S. soybeans, after China.
Minnesota farmers planted 7.6 million acres of soybeans in 2015, making it the nation’s fourth-largest producer with estimated sales valued at $3.25 billion.
A similar problem with unapproved seeds occurred in 2013 and 2014 with a different seed company and a different market. China turned away shipments of U.S. corn containing a Syngenta AG trait called Viptera — engineered to control insects — that it had not approved. The resulting confusion resulted in lawsuits against Syngenta by Cargill Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Co. and individual producers claiming millions of dollars in lost sales or lower prices.
“It’s unfortunate that seed companies feel the need to come to the market with seed varieties that have not yet been approved in all of our major markets,” Zelenka said. “I realize they’re trying to recover the money they’ve invested in research and development, but there should be more serious protocol about when these varieties are brought into the market and producers are allowed to plant them.”
Monsanto officials had expected EU approval prior to planting this spring, said Miriam Paris, Monsanto U.S. soybean marketing managerm, in a recent blog. The company is confident a final decision will come soon. Paris said that Monsanto has waived certain charges if growers in recent weeks decided to cancel orders for Roundup Ready 2 Xtend or exchange the seeds for other varieties.
Monsanto’s vice president and chief commercial officer, Mike Frank, said last week that given the EU delay, Monsanto has scaled back initial projections of 3 million U.S. acres for the rollout and now estimates the new soybean will be planted on fewer than 2 million acres in 2016. “However, given the strong grower demand for the technology, the company still expects to be on two-thirds of the U.S. soybean acres by 2019,” he said.
Gary Anderson, senior vice president of CHS North American grain marketing business, said that his company prefers to see all approvals in place before seeds are made available for farmers to plant.
“We’re not making any statement to whether it’s an actual safe product or the science of this at all,” Anderson said. “It’s just still not approved in one of our major [export] markets, and so given that, our policy is to not sell those seeds or buy the crops from those seeds.”
CHS is the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperative, based in Inver Grove Heights.
Several major grain elevators, soybean processors and other first purchasers have also issued notices that they will not accept the new soybean varieties, including Bunge Ltd., ADM and Cargill.