By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Syngenta AG, under pressure from U.S. grain exporters to suspend sales of seeds containing a new genetically modified corn trait that is not approved in China, said on Wednesday it has already "sold out" of the product.
Demand for the Agrisure Duracade trait has been strong because it is engineered to fight crop infestations of a damaging pest called rootworm, Chief Operating Officer Davor Pisk told analysts on a conference call.
By announcing that all seeds containing the trait had been sold, Syngenta shifted the focus of a farm-sector controversy back to grain merchants, who must decide whether they will buy grain produced from the seed by farmers.
Syngenta, the world's largest crop chemicals company, has faced calls from top U.S. grain groups to halt the commercialization of Duracade and another genetically modified corn trait called Agrisure Viptera until China approves the products for import.
The National Grain and Feed Association and North American Export Grain Association asked Syngenta last month to suspend the commercial use of the traits following the rejection of multiple cargoes of U.S. corn by Chinese authorities since November. The rejected cargoes contained the Viptera trait, known as MIR 162.
The planting of Duracade this spring threatens new disruptions as well as millions of dollars in potential losses for global grain traders, if the strain gets mixed into the mainstream supply chain and prompts another round of rejections from China, as some analysts fear.
Syngenta has declined to suspend sales of either product. The company has not seen any negative impact on Duracade orders in North America since the grain groups warned it could further hurt trade, Pisk said after Syngenta reported a lower-than-expected profit for 2013.
"We've got very strong orders, particularly for our Duracade product which is coming to market for the first time," he said, according to a transcript of the call. "We're sold out for that product."
He added that "the amount of Duracade that we have represents single digits in terms of our total portfolio."
Leaders of the U.S. grain groups were not available to comment.
Syngenta had said the Duracade trait would be available for planting for the first time this year in "limited quantities" after U.S. authorities cleared it for sale and cultivation last year.
Syngenta applied for Chinese import approval of the trait in March 2013 after U.S. authorities cleared it in February. In theory, China's agriculture ministry has 270 days to make a decision. However, industry sources say it can take as long as two years after a strain is approved by the United States.
Syngenta also is waiting for the European Union to approve Duracade for import. The company won import approval from Mexico and South Korea in September and from Japan in August. It also has import approval from Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan.
Viptera received U.S. approval in 2010 and has been awaiting approval from China for more than two years. The European Union approved Viptera for import in 2012.
"It doesn't actually achieve anything to suspend Viptera sales given that we've got a history now of many years of sales in the U.S., and of course a number of years of successful shipments to China," Pisk said on the call.
Foreign approvals are important because the United States is expected to export 1.45 billion bushels of corn in the marketing year that ends Aug. 31, accounting for 10 percent of the last harvest.
MEETING WITH GROWERS
Syngenta has been discussing the launch of Duracade with the National Corn Growers Association (NGFA) to "try to find a way to introduce this into the commercial stream that does not provide a tremendous amount of risk," said Nathan Fields, the association's director of biotechnology and economic analysis.
An NGFA committee that deals with trade policy and biotechnology met with representatives of Syngenta and other major seed-technology companies this week in part to discuss how Syngenta was proceeding with Duracade, Fields said.
"There's a way that you can do some sort of a soft launch or a limited launch," he said.
The participants also discussed different "levels of stewardship" from seed-technology companies, including how much follow-up work they will commit to with growers who buy their products, Fields said.
A spokesman for Syngenta did not comment on the meeting.