What was just a food preference has now become a way of life in Japan. Consumers there have made it clear that they don't want GMO products in their food.

“When I toured Japan three years ago, the Japanese' adverse attitude toward GMO products had become a trend. Now that attitude is entrenched,” says Kirk Leeds, executive director for the Iowa Soybean Association.

Leeds, Iowa farmers and representatives from the Iowa Department of Economic Development recently returned from a trade mission to Japan. While there, they talked with soybean importers, processors and food manufacturers.

“U.S. farmers already export food-grade, or non-GMO, soybeans to Japan. But there's considerable growth potential in that market,” he says. “That comes at the expense of commodity beans. But we have to respond to the consumers' desires. They want non-GMO soybeans and are willing to pay some more for those products. The same is true with organic food-grade soybeans.”

Soybeans are the most consumed oilseed crop in Japan, according to USDA's Foreign Ag Service. Roughly ¾ of the usage is for oil, 20% is for food and the rest is for feed use. The food-grade soybeans are used for tofu, miso (soybean paste), natto (fermented whole beans), boiled soybeans and soy sauce.

Over the years, Japan has been one of the best customers for all U.S. soybeans. The Asian country was our No. 1 soybean buyer until China and Mexico surpassed it in purchases in 1999.

But the market for U.S. commodity soybeans is a mature one, according to Leeds. International competition, particularly from Brazil, means it's a market the U.S. can't take for granted.

“On this trade mission to Japan, we heard repeatedly that we need to be price-competitive,” says Jim Stillman, Iowa Soybean Promotion Board chairman. “Right now our soybeans have better overall quality. But Brazil's growing conditions produce a bean that tends to be higher in protein and oil than ours. To maintain our commodity bean market in Japan, we're going to have to continue to provide the full package of price and quality.”

U.S. food-grade soybeans are clear winners in Japan. While U.S. food-grade soybean exports have declined in the last decade, they still dominate the Japanese market. And, says Leeds, that market should grow with the Japanese consumers' steadfast opposition to GMOs.

In 1993, the U.S. shipped 980,000 metric tons of food-grade soybeans to Japan, or 75.6% of that country's total imports. By 2002, it's estimated that U.S. exports dropped to 659,000 metric tons, or 57.9% of Japan's imports.

In the same time period, Canada's exports increased from 57,600 metric tons to 150,000 metric tons (from 4.4% to 13.2%). Japan also increased its own food-grade soybean production from 68,000 metric tons to 200,000 metric tons. That tripled its percent of the market from 5.3% in 1993 to 17.5% in 2002.

Japan's increased production stems in part from a government program that pays farmers handsomely to convert rice acres to soybeans. Japan grows more rice than it consumes, but is only 5% self-sufficient in soybeans.

Growing food-grade quality beans is just half the battle for farmers who want to sell to the Japanese market, according to Leeds. “It was obvious to us again on our trip in November that the Japanese truly value long-term relationships. The food-grade soybean market is one the U.S. can do well in if producers and exporters are willing to engage for the long term.”