By Yoichiro Aonuma, freelance journalist
The U.S. Corn Belt is Japan’s predominant granary. Soybean and corn crops produced there are largely genetically modified organisms (GMOs). I visited massive warehouses along the Mississippi River for this third article to look into the realities of American agriculture.
The Mississippi River flows from north to south across the midlands into the Gulf of Mexico. The last time I saw the largest river in the American continent was three years ago when I visited a small city along the riverbank called Muscatine, Iowa for another story.
Iowa is the top corn-producing state of the United States. and more than half of the corn grown in the United States is from Iowa along with the neighboring states of Illinois, Nebraska, and Minnesota. This Midwestern region of the U.S., which also is a big producer of soybeans, is called the Corn Belt.
The Mississippi River has functioned and developed as the main transportation artery for crops grown in the Corn Belt. It was also a symbol of the prosperity of the American economy.
I visited St. Louis, Missouri at the invitation of the U.S. Grains Council this summer. St. Louis is where the Missouri River and the Illinois River flow into the Mississippi River. More than 20% of American grown corn and soybean crops are transported through this region, 99% of which are taken to New Orleans to be exported to overseas destinations.
Its riverbanks are lined with enormous silos called river elevators that are as big as high-rise condos. I visited one of these elevators owned by ADM Grain Company.
Growing soybean exports to China
The Chicago future exchange’s market prices and the company’s purchase prices of grains were projected onto the office walls. Company employees reference these prices to directly negotiate with producers over the phone to buy up grains.
Some 200 trucks, 500 during peak season, hauling 800 to 1,000 bushels (around 20 to 25 tons) of corn travel to the site daily.
Each truck stops at the entrance to weigh the crop in its loading platform, and the grain company determines the grade of the crop and makes an offer to the driver. The driver then determines whether to sell based on the value offered. If the producer decides not to sell, the truck would simply drive off with the produce. If the producer agrees to the transaction price, the truck unloads its grain at a designated location on site. The purchasing company classifies the grains by grade and houses them in 130-foot (approx. 40 meters) silos.
“These silos were built in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” explains an ADM Grain Company representative. The countless repairs that’s been made to the silo walls underscores their history.
There were cylindrical shaped drying facilities built alongside the silos. “We dry the grains before shipment,” explained a company official. “Corn by 12%, wheat by 15%. High moisture levels compromise the grade of the grains so we put them in these to dry after we purchase them and sell them off at a higher price.” That is how profit margins are earned.
The grains are then loaded onto shipping vessels called barges and head to New Orleans. One shipment can be as heavy as 85,000 bushels (around 2,159 tons).
“Exports are doing well,” says an ADM executive. “We are not seeing the effects of climate change. I’ve been in this business for 35 years, and we are doing well.” Although there was a drought in 2013, it did not affect shipment volumes. “Soybean exports to China have been growing. No change in corn exports though.”
The company keeps grain samples until shipments arrive in New Orleans to avoid confusion. While most of the shipments are GMOs, the rare non-GMO shipment samples require a longer storage term. “Our clients required us to keep [the samples] during the length of the contract but we haven’t dealt with non-GMOs for the last couple of years.”
Trade in non-GMO products that the Japanese prefer is diminishing. “It’s an issue with cost,” explains the aforementioned source. “It’s expensive to manage non-GMOs.”
The handling of non-GMOs is governed by a stringent set of regulations. When exporting to Japan, for example, the shipment must comply with Identity Preserved Handling practices defined in JAS or the Act for Standardization and Proper Labeling of Agricultural and Forestry Products. Shipments must be strictly managed from overseas farms to food manufacturers to ensure that there is no contamination during the production and distribution process. Documentation certifying compliance is also required.
All facilities handling non-GMOs must take measures to prevent “contamination” from GMOs. This means extreme care must be exercised from delivery to shipment, including steps to cleanse all equipment and machinery that came in contact with the all-natural grains. This process is labor intensive and very unproductive. “Our clients must be prepared to shoulder the extra costs.”
Subsequently, I visited Dexter, Missouri, where crops of corn, soybeans, and cotton are grown. Although the majority of crops are GMOs, some farms grow non-GMOs. “The non-GMOs earn a higher price.” It is a business decision on the part of the farmer. Non-GMOs may take more time and effort, but they can be sold at a higher price point.
There is a family-run farm in Sikeston, Missouri, where a 40-year-old brother manages corn, soybean, and cotton farms with his younger sister who has a doctorate degree in farming from Mississippi State University. Although the young business-owners already operate a 6,400-acre (around 2,590 hectare) farmland, they hope to expand further. “We need to grow the business.” The siblings are expanding the acreage under their cultivation by borrowing farmland from retiring farmers.
GMO fruits and vegetables
The young siblings have been in the farming business since 2003 when GMOs has long since been on the market. So there was very little hesitation to cultivate GMO crops. In 2016, GMO corn and soybeans constituted 92% and 94%, respectively.
This trend is also seen outside the U.S. In Brazil, the percentages were 84.6% and 94.2%, respectively last year, while 94% of Canadian soybeans are GMOs.
Japan’s self-sufficiency rate for corn is less than 1%. Therefore it depends on the remaining 98.8% of its imports, mainly from the U.S. and Brazil with 74.5% and 24.3% respectively.
Similarly for soybeans, our nation produces a mere 7% of what we consume, depending on the U.S. (71.4%), Brazil (16.7%), and Canada (10.9%), which constitutes 99.1% of all soy imports.
GMOs are grown in 26 nations around the world on 185.1 million hectares of farmland, which is about 4.8-fold Japan’s territory. Since GMO crops entered the market in 1996, they have evolved and spread rapidly in the twenty or so years.
Imported corn and soybeans become fodder and processed ingredients so consumers have little or no awareness of actually eating them, but they are indirectly making their way into our systems through sweeteners, oils, and soy sauces.
Recently, gene modifying technology has been adopted in producing fruits and vegetables that we directly consume. Japan has been importing virus-resistant papayas that are made in Hawaii.
In Bangladesh and India, pest-resistant eggplants that kill the insects that eat the crops have been grown in recent years.
Although most of the fresh produce on the domestic market are produced in Japan, there is a possibility of inter-cropping between GMOs and non-GMOs in domestic farmlands. Like it or not, Japan is getting entangled in this global trend.