A recent Dow Jones report that China has purchased 3.7 million metric tons (MMT) of U.S. corn for delivery starting in September and possible Chinese pork imports to slow an 11.4 percent increase in retail pork prices in June have suggested a demand shift that could reshape agricultural trade globally. Experiences with Chinese soybean and cotton imports and the demand potential for corn and pork point to that possibility.

 

Prior to 1995, China imported almost no soybeans for processing into oil for human consumption and meal for livestock feed. In the marketing year beginning this fall according to estimates from the Foreign Agricultural Service of USDA, China will import 56.5 MMT of soybeans. That is soybeans from roughly 48.0 million acres of land, mostly in the U.S., Brazil and Argentina. China buys 60 percent of the soybeans traded in the world and accounts for half the soybeans and products exported by the U.S. Chinese domestic soybean production is about 20 percent of the nation’s total supply. China will also import 10.2 MMT of vegetable oil, 16.9 percent of world trade. The world market for soybeans, other oilseeds and grain crops would be significantly different if China were not a major importer of soybeans and vegetable oils.

China is expected to import 15.3 million bales of cotton for the marketing year beginning August 1, 40 percent of world trade. China imported about 3.0 million bales per year in the mid-1990s, but that decline to 200,000 bales per year in 1999 and 2000 before increasing sharply in 2002. Domestic production accounts for 67 percent of China’s cotton consumption because China is the world’s largest producer at 33.0 million bales. The next largest importer of cotton is Bangladesh at 4.0 million bales. The U.S. is expected to be the largest exporter at 12.0 million bales, with India the next largest at 5.0 million bales. At an average world yield of 1.4 bales per acres, China’s cotton imports use 10.9 million acres.

Chinese corn production for the year beginning October 1 is estimated at 178.0 MMT, the second largest after the U.S. at 342.2 MMT. Imports of the reported 3.7 MMT already contracted for 2011/12 would not be a concern for self sufficiency because the goal is 95 percent of consumption. Imports for the current year are projected at 1.5 MMT, while imports for last year (2009/10) are estimated at 1.3 MMT. These are the largest imports years since 1994/95 at 4.3 MMT and 1995/96 at 1.5 MMT. Those two years of high imports resulted in much speculation then about how much corn China would import. Rather than increase imports, China increased area harvested from 52.2 million acres in 1994/95 to 81.5 million acres for the 2011/12 marketing year and yield per acre increased from 75 bushels per acre to 86 bushels per acre. Total production increased by 79 percent from 99.3 MMT in 1994/95 to the projected 178.0 MMT this year.

China is not likely capable of continuing to increase corn area. Yields continue to increase, but not as fast as needed to match consumption, estimated at 182.5 MMT for the next marketing year. U.S. seed corn companies operate in China, but the government’s goal is to rely on domestic companies for seed rather than international ones. Recent media reports indicate Monsanto is in extended discussions with Sinochem Corporation, a large seed producer, for some type of expanded seed relationship that may result in yield increases for corn.

Chinese corn imports of 3.7 MMT would make it a mid-level corn importer similar to Colombia, Iran and Malaysia, but smaller than Egypt and the EU-27. When China joined the WTO in 2001 it agreed to a tariff rate quota for 7.2 MMT of tariff free corn each year. China would be a welcome addition to the corn market, about 4 percent of current trade, but not one that would shift the supply/demand balance.

Earlier this year the U.S. Grains Council, a private, non-profit group that promotes exports of corn and other coarse grains, projected that China could import 15 MMT (591 million bushels) of corn per year by 2015. That would put China in the same class as Japan, the largest corn importer at 16.1 MMT this year. The current second largest importer is Mexico at 9.2 MMT. If all of the other markets did not grow until 2015, China would be 14 percent of a 106.7 MMT world market. Imports would likely account for 6-8 percent of Chinese consumption. If all of the additional corn came from the U.S., exports would increase from 48 MMT to 61 MMT, a 31 percent increase. At the projected corn yield per acre for this year’s U.S. corn crop of 158.7 bushels per acre, the exports to China would require 3.7 million acres of land. That would stretch markets to make adjustments, but would not reshape world grain markets. If Chinese corn import demand continued to expand after 2015 that would reshape the markets as has occurred for soybeans and cotton.

China is the dominant producer of pork in the world with a January 1, 2011 inventory of 477 million head, 59.8 percent of the world total of 798 million. The EU-27 was second at 150 million head, and the U.S. third at 64 million. Production for this year is projected at 52.5 MMT for China, 22.9 MMT for the EU-27 and 10.3 MMT for the U.S. Chinese imports are projected at 0.41 MMT for 2011, up from 0.355 MMT last year, but still only 6.7 percent of world trade of 6.15 MMT. In 2008 when China had swine health problems, imports were 0.709 MMT, 11.4 percent of total world trade of 6.20 MMT and 33.5 percent of U.S. exports. The critical number is that current world pork trade of 6.2 MMT is only 11.8 percent of Chinese pork production. A Chinese production shortfall of 5 percent would require imports of 2.6 MMT, 42 percent of current world trade. That would change world markets.

Gradual import changes by China can be accommodated by its trading partners without great difficulties, but large sudden demand shifts will cause supply and price responses. The solution to these concerns is more openness about changing market demands and changes in government policies. The Agricultural Ministers from the G20 countries, including China, committed to providing plans for more market information sharing when they met last month in Paris in preparation for a heads of state meeting in November. Markets need to understand if changes in short-term imports reflect temporary market conditions or are part of a fundamental change in the role of imports in supplying food to the Chinese people.

Ross Korves is the Economic Policy Analyst for Truth About Trade & Technology.