WASHINGTON — The recent purchase by China of 50,000 tonnes of U.S. wheat from the Pacific Northwest was seen as a "significant breakthrough for the U.S. wheat industry," according to Alan Tracy, president of U.S. Wheat Associates, an export market development organization.
"We hope it is just the beginning of a new relationship with this potentially multi-million-tonne wheat market," Mr. Tracy added.
The purchase is China's first shipment of wheat from the Pacific Northwest region in nearly 20 years. Previously, wheat shipments from that region had been banned because of China's contention that the grain contained excessive amounts of a sour-smelling fungus.
The wheat purchase, made by the National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO), China's official government buyer, is a "trial shipment" that will let Chinese millers judge the characteristics and qualities of three classes of U.S. wheat, Mr. Tracy said. The purchase was for 30,000 tonnes of soft white wheat, 10,000 tonnes of hard red spring wheat and 10,000 tonnes of hard red winter wheat.
Both countries signed an agreement last fall under which China would allow the shipment of U.S. wheat from any U.S. state or port to any Chinese port. China has agreed to permit larger imports of wheat and other agricultural products when it joins the World Trade Organization.
Daniel G. Amstutz, president and chief executive officer of the North American Export Grain Association in Washington, called the recent purchase a "token" transaction. "The reason for this mission is to bolster a Clinton administration effort to have Congress grant (China) normal trade status, not because there is a serious need for wheat," Mr. Amstutz added.
However, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said that of the 3 million tonnes of wheat China plans to import this year, the country could purchase as much as half of it from the U.S.
Mr. Tracy of U.S. Wheat admitted that the passage of permanent, normal trade relations status was critical for the U.S. wheat industry. Shipping wheat to China from the Pacific Northwest will provide a freight advantage for some classes of wheat, he explained.
"Now that the China market is accepting wheat from the Pacific Northwest as well as from the gulf ports, we are in a much better position to compete," Mr. Tracy said.
U.S. Wheat Associates has maintained an office in Beijing for the last 20 years and works to develop the export market there.