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What to Make of the Recent Wheat Scare

Monsanto's facing a lawsuit ... but should you care?


While there’s no shortage of headlines screaming about Monsanto’s (MON) genetically modified crops, it’s hard to know how much we should actually care about them.

And I don’t mean as consumers. The issue of GM crops is a sticky subject — much stickier than many organic-loving, Occupy-Monsanto-marchers would like to admit — and, quite frankly, this isn’t the time or place.

I mean whether we should care as investors.

In case you missed it, unapproved genetically engineered wheat was found growing on an Oregon farm last month, which in itself engineered some panic — especially from Asian countries that get a good chunk of their wheat from the U.S.

Now, a few farmers are suing Monsanto, claiming the scare has harmed them financially by impacting wheat exports (Japan and South Korea canceled deals in the wake of the news) and prices.

While it is not yet known “how widespread the unapproved wheat is, or if it has contaminated food supplies,” perception itself can pose a huge problem — especially because Asian consumers are extra-sensitive to genetically engineered foods. They’ll tolerate GM crops for animal feed (possibly thanks to the extra level of the food chain?), but GM food that goes straight to the mouth? Not so fast.

Few Asian countries allow imports of such cereals for human consumption … and Asian countries matter in the wheat-world. Take a look:

  • The U.S. is the largest exporter of wheat. In 2013, we are projected to export 18% of the global trade — a whopping 925 million bushels.
  • Almost a third of the global trade of wheat goes to Asia. Asia imports more than 40 million tonnes of wheat annually — or 1.5 billion bushels. And yes, the U.S. is its largest supplier.
  • From June 2012 to May 2013, Japan alone snatched up 3.1 million tonnes of U.S wheat, with South Korea grabbing 1.1 million and China tallying 1.5 million.
  • Reuters also noted recently that Chinese purchases by June 2014 are estimated to rise 21% to 3.5 million tonnes, according to the USDA.

Those are big numbers, and a little fear can go a long way. Abah Ofon, an analyst at Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore, told Reuters regarding the Oregon incident: “This is adding to concerns that already exist on quality and availability of food wheat globally.”

Joyce Liu, an investment analyst at Phillip Futures in Singapore, added: “I won’t be surprised if other countries start canceling or reducing their purchases of U.S. wheat, particularly Asian countries, putting pressure on wheat demand.”

The parallel example being cited: In 2006, a big chunk of the U.S. long-grain rice crop was contaminated, leading to import bans in Europe and Japan and lowered market prices. (The company at fault later paid $750 million to growers as compensation. )

Plus, considering that Monsanto hardly has a sparkling reputation to begin with, it seems like the news of such an incident — even without actual widespread contamination — could be enough for a similar outcome. Right?

I’m not convinced.

Let’s start with Monsanto itself. Yes, if Monsanto loses the lawsuit, it wouldn’t be a good thing for the company’s bottom line. But it sure wouldn’t be the end of the world. The amount of the dispute hasn’t been released, but officials says it “exceeds $75,000.” Monsanto, as the world’s largest seed-maker, is a $52 billion company that made $2 billion last year alone. That’s a drop in the bucket.

And in terms of perception, the corporation has faced piles of bad publicity time and time again. That means two things: First, Monsanto’s claims that the incident was indeed isolated (and that it was maybe the result of sabotage) may actually be true, but few are considering that because … well … it’s Monsanto.

And on the flipside, it can wait for the headlines and hype to die down, then keep chugging. Consider that Monsanto was outpacing the S&P 500’s breakneck run over the past year until this incident. The stock also slid from 2008 to 2010 — the years following a not-so-hot portrayal in documentary Food Inc. — but since then has been on a general upward trajectory .

Plus, there has been speculation that genetically modified foods are gaining acceptance, including the conversion of one of the industry’s original protesters.

If you’re skeptical, though, you could take another angle: The further-blemished reputation of Monsanto may be a good thing for second-place seed-maker Dupont (DD). As has seemed to be the case for years now, Monsanto soaks up all the bad press, often shifting the dialogue so the corporation itself is seen as the problem … not GM crops.

Still, in both cases, the future will in large part be determined by legislation in Washington — and I’m no crystal ball. If widespread contamination is discovered, there will likely be a push for stricter control. At the same time, any outcry may lead to more Prop 37-like proposals … but no passages.

With that in mind, let’s flip to the other side of the coin: wheat buyers. If Asian companies indeed turn their backs on possibly contaminated crops, that sounds bad. But the slackened demand could actually be a good thing for wheat users — Kellogg (K), General Mills (GIS), Molson Coors (TAP), and Anheuser Busch (BUD), for example — who can snatch up the crop at lower prices.

Instead, a bigger problem will be if the crop turns out to be largely contaminated, as a smaller crop would have the opposite effect on prices. Even in that case, though I actually wouldn’t worry. If prices were to go up — whether for that reason, or for those trying to get wheat from within Asian countries low on supply — that cost can easily be passed onto consumers.

And don’t think for a second that folks might stop buying wheat-related products if that comes to pass. To be frank, most consumers lack awareness about what they eat — especially if there is a layer or two of processing between the commodity and whatever is purchased at the supermarket.

The bottom line: In terms of wheat input — even if you’re worried about putting GM wheat in your own body — this scare shouldn’t really upset your stomach from the investing side.

At the time of publication, Oursler had no positions in the securities mentioned.

Article printed from InvestorPlace Media,

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