What does China’s food security push mean for soybean prices?

July 26, 2023 09:04
Photo: Reuters

China has made no secret of its aim to achieve food security. As the world’s biggest importer of a number of staples, including soybeans, corn and rice, its push to be self-sufficient has significant implications for agricultural commodity prices.

Soybeans are included in the list of agricultural commodities for which President Xi Jinping has called for increased production. The country is currently the world’s largest importer of soybeans, accounting for nearly 60% of world trade, according to the USDA. The majority of the soybeans China imports are crushed to produce soybean oil used in cooking, and soybean meal for animal feed.

But China is heavily reliant on just two markets, the United States and Brazil, for its soybean imports. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine, and its impact on agricultural commodity prices, has further highlighted the benefits of becoming more self-sufficient in soybeans.

Record Soybean Production

China’s soybean production reached a record high in 2022, on the back of the government’s push to increase food security. Domestic production rose by 23.7% during the year to reach 20.28 million metric tons, according to official government estimates. Further increases are expected in the years ahead as efforts continue to meet the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs’ target of boosting the country’s soybean output by 40% by the end of 2025.

Initiatives to increase production range from encouraging more agricultural land to be set aside for soybean farming, intercropping soybeans with corn, and improving farming practices to boost crop yields. At the same time, the Ministry has also announced plans to increase the scope of pilot projects using genetically modified soybeans to further boost production. Meanwhile, in a bid to ease consumption, the Ministry recently published a three-year plan to reduce the amount of soymeal used in animal feed, calling for the proportion of soymeal in feed to be cut from 2022’s level of 14.5% to 13% by 2025.

Despite these efforts, China faces a number of challenges in its quest for soybean security. These include the impact extreme weather events as a result of climate change can have on soybean harvests. Another issue is the fact that soybeans can be grown interchangeably with corn. Not only is the government also trying to increase the production of corn, but elevated corn prices may encourage farmers to focus on this crop. Meanwhile, despite government efforts to increase the acreage given over to soybean farming, China’s high consumption levels means output is unlikely to reach a level that is high enough to meet the country’s demand.

Falling Imports

Whether due to efforts to boost domestic production, or as a result of soaring prices and ongoing supply chain disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical tensions, China’s soybean imports fell by 5.6% to 91.08 million metric tons in 2022 - the second consecutive year of decline, according to data from the General Administration of Customs.

The drop has led to predictions that China’s soybean imports may already have peaked, with Rabobank recently publishing a report forecasting imports will continue to decline until 2030. It attributed the fall to a combination of reduced livestock production, a lower soymeal inclusion rate in animal feed and improved farming practices.

Even so, Rabobank still expects China to remain the world’s largest soybean importer. China consumes around 110 million metric tons of soybeans each year, according to government data. Even if it hits its target of increasing domestic production by 40% by 2025, and consumption declines due to reduced demand for soybean meal for animal feed, it is still likely to face a shortfall of tens of millions of metric tons each year. These ongoing high levels of demand from the world’s biggest soybean consumer are likely to continue to have a significant influence on soybean prices.

Soybean Price Drivers

Although China is the world’s largest importer of soybeans, its consumption is only one of a number of factors that drive soybean prices. The price of soybeans has been on a strong upward trajectory since mid-2020, with prices reaching a record level in the months following the start of the conflict in Ukraine, although they have since fallen back from this high.

Buoyant soybean prices are in part being driven by lower supply, with drought conditions in Argentina, the world’s biggest soybean exporter, causing production to slump to its lowest level for more than a decade, according to the USDA. U.S. production is also down year-on-year, with higher domestic consumption further dampening exports.

At the same time, demand for soybeans remains strong. The ongoing impact of the conflict in Ukraine on the production of sunflower oil has continued to boost demand - and by extension prices - of alternative edible oils, including soybean oil. Soybean oil’s use as a biofuel has not only increased demand but also hit exports.

Domestic demand in the U.S. has caused U.S. soybean oil export prices to be uncompetitive, while the increase in Brazil’s biodiesel blend mandate to 12% has hit export supplies, according to USDA data. Meanwhile, oil crushers in Argentina are looking to increase soybean imports to offset the shortfall in domestic production due to the drought, further increasing demand.

This combination of lower production, and still high demand, looks very likely to continue to support high soybean prices going forward.

Ongoing Price Volatility

With the supply of soybeans impacted by a range of factors, many of which are uncontrollable, such as extreme weather and geopolitical conflict, and demand expected to remain high, price volatility could continue for the foreseeable future.

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Executive Director of Commodity Products, Asia Pacific, CME Group