Beijing’s renewal of expired import certificates of several biotech corn strains last week is an encouraging sign that the United States and China will soon resolve the import dispute over an unapproved corn variety that has caused the rejection of several U.S. corn shipments, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

“These were renewals, so it’s not new, but it’s comforting to the companies who had been waiting for quite some time for this,” Vilsack told reporters at the annual American Farm Bureau Federation convention here.

“These renewals had been sitting on the desks of ministers for some time so that was a positive step.”

U.S. trade groups got word last week that China renewed the import of several GMO seed varieties, but there was still no word on Syngenta AG’s MIR 162 corn, a GMO variety that has been awaiting China’s official approval for more than two years.

Beijing, the third largest buyer of U.S. corn last year, has rejected some 600,000 tonnes of U.S. corn shipments since November after testing positive for the unapproved corn strain. Chinese officials have also rejected about 2,000 tonnes of U.S. dried distillers’ grain (DDG), a popular corn-based feed grain.

Despite those rejections, China continues to ship U.S. corn and has relaxed import restrictions on DDGs. China shipped 155,600 tonnes of U.S. corn just last week, the second biggest shipper behind Japan.

USDA last week reduced its forecast for corn imports by China in the 2013/14 (Sept/Aug) marketing year to 5 million tonnes, down from 7 million previously, amid the still-unresolved MIR 162 issue and as China’s domestic crop was larger than initially thought.

Vilsack met with Chinese government officials in December as part of the annual Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade talks and discussed biotech approvals, including a pilot program to synchronize U.S. and Chinese regulatory review of new biotech crop varieties. Currently, China does not begin its reviews until U.S. approval is received.

“After we left, they put a little distance between our visit and their action, but after we left four or five events that had been sitting for some time were finally approved,” Vilsack said. “What we’ve been able to get them to agree to is to start on a pilot at the same time. We will probably have to finish before they do, but they’ll at least start and that could save a year in the process on their side.”

It remained unclear why Chinese officials began rejecting MIR 162 corn this season when the variety has been in the U.S. corn supply since 2011.

From China and from “folks representing American shipping interests” Vilsack was told that there was “a significant issue between the company and the Chinese officials. They didn’t get into the details about what the issue was.”

When asked how long it will take for a resolution Vilsack would not give a specific time frame.

“Their systems need to be upgraded and they’re facing political issues and we just need to be patient.” (Reuters)