Wheat Ranchers Sow Seeds of Transparency

Discovery of rogue Roundup-resistant wheat plants on one Eastern Oregon farm could lead to suspended wheat exports and has prompted U.S. wheat exporters to talk candidly and directly with their international customers about the issue.U.S. wheat exporters are demonstrating the business value of transparent communications. They are talking directly to their overseas customers, telling their story about the recent discovery of Roundup-resistant wheat in Eastern Oregon. 

Wheat ranchers don't want to jeopardize their $8.1 billion per year in exports to nations wary about human consumption of genetically modified foods. According to Bloomberg News, Japan already has suspended wheat imports from the United States pending further findings by U.S. agriculture officials. Other importers may follow suit.

A similar episode occurred in 2006 when unapproved genetically modified rice was detected in the U.S. harvest. The discovery caused prices to plummet and exports to slow and ultimately led to a $750,000 settlement between the developer of the field-test rice and 11,000 American farmers.

Monsanto dropped its field-testing of Roundup-resistant wheat in 2004 after wheat ranchers said it could threaten exports, even though the USDA concluded the wheat was safe for human consumption.

All the field-test wheat plants were supposed to have been collected and destroyed. The discovery this week of renegade wheat plants that are Roundup-resistant sent shudders down the back of wheat ranchers.

As the agency investigates whether there are more Roundup-resistant plants, U.S. Agriculture Department officials are alerting large wheat importers. But U.S. Wheat Associates, the voice of wheat exporters, is making its own contacts, telling its own story.

In a statement issued jointly with the National Association of Wheat Growers, U.S. Wheat Associates said, "Nothing is more important than the trust we've earned with our customers at home and around the world by providing a reliable supply of high-quality wheat."

"As industry leaders," the statement continued, "we will cooperate with authorities in the United States and international markets to understand the facts surrounding this incident and help minimize its impact."

Less thoughtful people may have blown off the "incident," which involves a couple of wheat plants on one farm in one state. But that would have missed the opportunity to deepen the trust between supplier and customer by talking openly about the situation and committing to resolve it.

For its part, Monsanto dismissed the discovery, saying in a statement that the finding was either invalid or highly unusual. The statement said at most the Roundup-resistant trait has been found in a just a handful of wheat plants. It's worth noting that after ending its earlier field study, the company has decided to resume testing genetically modified wheat.

U.S. Wheat Associates is showing maturity in its approach to what could be very bad economic news. It is addressing the issue straightforwardly and, most important, transparently. Wheat ranchers know the trust they have worked hard to earn is on the line and they are acting accordingly.

"We appreciate our customers standing with us while we monitor the investigation," it says. "We will share additional information as soon as it becomes available."