Monday, May 23, 2022

China's Foreign Agricultural Investment Problems

Chinese investment in agriculture around the world is not the unstoppable "land-grabbing" juggernaut often depicted by news media and NGOs. A recent article identifying difficulties encountered by Chinese outbound agricultural investment indicates that the companies are often ill-prepared to do business outside China. 

An April 2022 article by the China International Economic Exchange Center repeats a series of complaints cited in other articles over the past decade that, arguably, arise from the insular nature of China's own agribusiness sector: a shortage of personnel with language skills, little understanding of foreign cultures or business practices in the host country, failure to interact with local business and government leaders, and lack of experience with international accounting, finance, law and tax practices. Some related anecdotal evidence not cited in the article: when Chinese companies hire foreigners with international skills and knowledge they are typically kept isolated within the company, and Chinese expatriates working abroad often retreat into their office compounds to avoid dealing with the locals. These problems are surely being worsened by the pandemic as China's leadership expels or drives out foreign merchants and teachers, shuts down foreign travel, ramps up nationalist rhetoric, peddles disdain for foreigners, and touts the superiority of China's economic system.

The recipe for agribusiness success inside China doesn't travel well outside the home ecosystem. Cutting cost to the bone is the primary Chinese business strategy at home, and the article faults Chinese businesses operating abroad for skimping on job training, wages and social insurance due to "cost considerations." China's strategy for foreign agricultural investment focuses on state-owned entities as the leading edge of development, including a couple of state-owned companies such as COFCO, the provincial state-farm ("Nong Ken") system, and the Xinjiang Production Corps. Communist leaders think "big" companies are "strong", but these big companies mostly operate as extensions of the government and rely on their Chinese government connections to tell them what to do, set up deals and arrange financing from state banks. Business leaders whose main skill is connections with the Chinese government find themselves adrift and helpless operating in other countries where they have no local government or business connections. 

Complaints about "incomplete" legal and regulatory systems in the host country echo complaints foreign investors make about doing business in China where laws and regulations are vague, fluid and selectively applied by legal authorities to favor Chinese companies over foreign investors. Chinese agricultural companies get a dose of their own medicine when they venture abroad elsewhere in Asia, Russia, and Africa. Companies accustomed to benefiting from a loosey-goosey legal environment at home in China don't know how to handle such a system when they are the foreigners. The article also frets that Chinese companies have no industry association to advocate for them in legal, policy and trade disputes (in China, virtually all such associations are quasi-government entities).

A complaint that regularly appears in such articles is that Chinese companies operating abroad were unable to ship grain, sugar, and cotton home due to the restrictive tariff rate quota system that Chinese authorities describe as a "firewall" to protect China's market. This suggests that Chinese companies launch business ventures abroad--say, growing rice in Cambodia--without thinking about how they plan to market their product. 

Another complaint is political instability and other risks in host countries. China's agricultural investment has gravitated toward impoverished and unstable countries to achieve their geopolitical aims. China has prominent agricultural projects in Pakistan, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and aims to sign an agricultural agreement with South Sudan during the next five years.

A couple of news outlets outside China noted that Russia's invasion of Ukraine threatened China's agricultural investments in Ukraine. Agriculture was a prominent part of China's Ukrainian investment plan launched in 2013 and Black Sea port and logistics facilities belonging to grain traders Nidera and Noble Agri were targeted in COFCO's multi-billion-dollar acquisitions of the two companies. In 2021 China imported ag products from Ukraine worth over $5 billion--composed mainly of corn, barley, and sunflower oil and meal--and COFCO probably handled much of the trade. 

"Sound of Hope" reported that Russia's invasion threatened $9 billion-worth of "Belt and Road" investments in Ukraine, citing specifically the shelling of COFCO-invested port facilities in Odessa. Freight shipments on a railway connecting China with Odessa have been completely suspended. Bloomberg News learned that a COFCO sunflower seed crushing plant built in 2012 was shot up in the Russian attack on Mariupol. Satellite imagery showed holes in the two main buildings and dozens of bomb craters and destroyed houses near the facility. A Canadian Chinese-language article raised concerns about threats to Chinese investments in Ukraine, including a COFCO edible oil storage facility in Kharkiv and multiple port facilities. In February, a company associated with Jiangsu Province's state farm system told investors plans for a $5-million oilseed-production, processing and logistics project in Ukraine had been suspended. 

Investigations of COFCO's emergence as a major buyer and trader of Brazilian soybeans in the Journal of Peasant Studies indicate that COFCO's main strategy was to pay significant premiums for soybeans to boost its market share over its "ABCD" competitors. The rationale for gaining market share was to prevent Chinese importers from being "overcharged" by ABCD companies, but it's unclear how paying extra for soybeans to gain market share achieves the objective of lowering the cost of China's soybean imports.

China's 5-year plan for "international cooperation" in agriculture and rural affairs calls for more outbound investment by Chinese companies. The central planning mentality in the document designates industries, commodities, and countries to focus on, coordination with government departments, a network of foreign agricultural demonstration zones, and the "belt and road" initiative. But the document has no mention of managerial expertise or marketing opportunities as a driver of investment projects. Business plans and language skills optional.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

China's Miraculous Sow Productivity­čś«

After African swine fever (ASF) virus landed in China in August 2018 it swept through every province of the country within a matter of months. Farmers killed off entire herds and even sent their sows to slaughter to prevent the virus from getting them. Monthly reports from the Agriculture Ministry indicate that the number of sows fell by 55%--from 44.7 million head in December 2018 to under 20 million in September 2019. Yet, the number of finished hogs slaughtered for commercial sale fell by only 24%.

Even more remarkably, China's agricultural officials reported in 2021 that the number of sows and the swine inventory had essentially recovered to normal. China's Central Television reported in October 2021 that the number of sows had more than doubled from a low of 19.1 million in September 2019 to 45.6 million in June 2021. 

Sow inventory is level at the end of the previous year.
Data from China's National Bureau of Statistics. 

Most commentators thought it would take years for China to rebuild its swine herd to pre-ASF levels, yet the agriculture ministry declared in 2021 that production capacity had already recovered to its normal level. These numbers are miraculous.

You can only produce pigs by breeding sows, waiting nearly 4 months for them to produce a litter, weaning the piglets and feeding them another 4-5 months until they reach a market weight. Sows can be bred maybe twice a year. Dim Sums calculated the productivity of Chinese sows since 2009 to prove that China's swine recovery was indeed a miracle. 

The number of slaughtered hogs per sow rose from 13.7 to 15.5 head between 2009 and 2018. These numbers seem plausible for China's level of development and indicate modest productivity growth--a 16-percent improvement over 9 years. The hogs-per-sow ratio dropped to 14.3 in 2019 after ASF hit the industry ­čśč. But the hogs-per-sow ratio soared to 26 head as China's 20 million sows in January 2020 produced 671 million mature hogs before the end of that year ­čś«. Then, in 2021 the hogs-per-sow ratio was down to 16.1--back on the trend toward gradually higher productivity that prevailed before ASF. (An agricultural official cited a 16 hogs-per-sow productivity figure last year in his assessment of annual production capacity.)
Calculated from hog slaughter and sow numbers published by China's National Bureau of Statistics.

Let's make the calculation a little more realistic by incorporating the biological lag with quarterly data. We'll lag the slaughter numbers by 3 months (assuming half the sows at the beginning of the year are near farrowing and the other half are just being bred). Let's also account for the fact that the increase in the sow inventory during the year had to be produced by the sows. This more careful productivity = (slaughtered hogs over four quarters + the increase in number of sows)/(starting number of sows in Q1).

This second productivity calculation (the red line in the chart above) also starts out at a realistic level of about 15-16 hogs per sow during 2016-2019, then shoots up to 29 pigs per sow in 2020. Then the ratio  falls to 16.9 pigs per sow--a little higher than pre-ASF.

Both measures suggest China's sows produced miraculous numbers of pigs during 2020. China achieved Denmark's level of sow productivity for a year, then returned to China's productivity level in 2021. 

The numbers are even more miraculous when we consider that it was widely reported during 2020 that Chinese farms began taking "third generation" females meant for the fattening barn and breeding them as sows to expand production at warp speed in order to maximize profit during a year of record-high prices. We heard that these females had low productivity--they had smaller litters and fewer litters than "second generation" sows. Moreover, core breeding farms were decimated by culling and disease and could not be restocked because imports of breeding stock was shut down during the ASF epidemic. But the massive one-year spike in productivity proves we were wrong about all that. Those sows popped out nearly twice as many pigs as previous generations did.

I don't know how to explain this miracle of pig productivity. It's right there in the statistics, and statistics don't lie, do they? In China's superior agricultural system pigs can be created out of thin air just when they're needed.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

China Meat Prices Low, Farm Demolition Resumes

Chinese officials are demolishing livestock farms again now that a meat shortage has turned to glut.

In April 2022 China's central disciplinary commission posted an article warning village and town officials they could be reprimanded or fired for complicity in illegal use of farmland. Two of four cases of illegal use of cropland from Anhui Province circulated by the commission were cases of illegal hog farms built in 2020 when the government was pushing local officials to expand hog production as fast as possible to alleviate a pork shortage. 

One illegal Anhui hog farm was built by a village official in July 2020 on 1.93 mu (less than a third of an acre) of land. The official continued building the farm after receiving a warning that the project did not comply with the local land use plan. The official was reprimanded and removed from his post for ignoring warnings despite being responsible for enforcement of local land use regulations.

In another village, the party secretary built a hog farm on 5.56 mu (less than an acre) in June 2020. Most of the land was designated as "permanent basic farmland." Seven months later the municipal natural resources planning bureau notified him that the farm was an illegal land use and fined him RMB 91,000 (about $13,300).  In March 2022, the official was severely reprimanded and removed from his post as village party secretary. 

Farm demolition in Fujian Province: before, during and after.

Another compendium of official news media reports about demolitions of poultry and pig farms has also been circulated online. On April 28, over 100 officials gathered on the banks of Gupi Canal in Fujian Province's Bangtou Town to supervision the demolition of 97 illegal "backyard" duck and poultry farms dumping waste into the canal. In Fujian's Gutian County the Peoples Court ruled that it was OK to destroy illegal livestock farms and forestry projects. In March 2022, 30 teams of officials destroyed four pig barns and 16 chicken and duck sheds. That same month in Yuanzhuang Town citizens were offered rewards for reporting illegal livestock farms; the reward is proportional to the size of the farm reported.

In Jiangxi Province's Jinggangshan City, citizens posted an online complaint about a pig farm with two barns constructed on "wasteland" at the base of a mountain. The farm had a manure collection tank, methane gas digester, and did not emit waste, but it was nevertheless slated for demolition because one barn was not compliant. 

Some districts in Shandong Province's Tengzhou City decided to ban duck farms, and village party secretaries are threatened with dismissal if any duck farms are built in their villages. 

Officials in Xigang Town in Shandong discuss their plans to ban duck farms.

These articles reflect the conflicting goals of supplying meat, preserving cropland, and keeping the environment clean. In whack-a-mole style, environmental regulations are enforced when meat supplies are abundant, but enforcement eases up when meat supplies are tight.

In 2010 the Ministry of Environmental Protection claimed its pollution census showed livestock farms were the top emitters of water pollutants. In January 2013, a national plan to clean up livestock farm pollution was released. Then a month later, a mysterious horde of dead pigs floated into Shanghai's Huangpu River. The pigs allegedly came from upstream in Jiaxing, in Zhejiang Province, where local officials managed to launch a campaign to replace backyard piggeries with large-scale farms within a month after the incident. The Jiaxing campaign was quickly replicated nationwide.

An aggressive environmental rectification campaign urged local officials to designate districts where livestock and poultry farms were banned or partially banned. The Ministry of Environmental Protection boasted of demolishing hundreds of thousands of livestock and poultry farms. The Agriculture Ministry launched a grand plan to move livestock farms out of southeastern provinces and city outskirts to the northern and western hinterlands.

According to one estimate at the high-tide of the livestock farm demolition movement in 2017, the enforcement of environmental-driven farm demolitions had reduced China's national swine inventory by 36 million head and was credited with a "transformational upgrade" of the swine industry as it mainly eliminated "backyard" livestock and poultry farms that have no waste collection or treatment facilities. 

Another 2017 commentary described the environmental campaign as handing small farms a death sentence, but also observed that large-scale environmentally compliant farms used a lot of land and had higher costs due to the expenses of installing and operating manure collection and treatment facilities. New Hope-Liuhe, one of China's biggest feed and livestock companies, estimated that investment and operating costs of environmental facilities increased the cost of a weaned pig by 16 percent.

An African swine fever epidemic began in 2018 and swept through the entire country within a year, reducing the swine herd by at least 25 percent. To alleviate a meat shortage, local officials were ordered to rush through land-use applications for new pig farms and ease up on environmental assessments. Officials were criticized for being overzealous in banning livestock farms in districts near residential areas, bodies of water, scenic areas, major transportation routes, and food markets. In March 2020, the environment ministry announced simpler environmental registrations for pig farms and an easing up on local pig farm bans.

The recent articles in 2022 appear to be a message to local officials that they should resume crackdowns on environmental and land-use violations by "backyard" livestock farms.

Hog prices fell more than 50 percent last year as pork production rebounded "faster then expected," according to China agriculture ministry. In 2021, all but one of the major swine-producing companies lost money. In the first quarter of 2022, five top swine-farming companies lost a combined RMB 14.9 billion (about $2.2 billion) and nine poultry companies reported losses of RMB 854 million (about $125 million). Time to start cracking down on those backyard farmers again.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Wheat Silage Debate: No Freedom to Farm in China

In a socialist country where farmers are just borrowing the land from the State they do not have the right to decide how they will grow and sell their crops. The State can change its mind and make up regulations on the spot on a document no one has read. 

China's agriculture ministry was outraged early this month by reports that some farmers have been cutting their wheat fields a month before harvest to sell as silage for animal feed. The Ministry was responding to online videos advising farmers to cut down their wheat to be chopped up and fed to cattle. The Ministry sent out investigation teams to ascertain the extent of the practice, instructed local officials to investigate the "destruction" of wheat fields, and promised to investigate those who violate unspecified regulations. Henan Province immediately issued an emergency document banning the sale of wheat for silage.

Truck loaded with wheat chopped for silage.

Securities Times explained that silage is an animal feed made by controlled fermentation of green material like corn stalks, leaves of sugar cane or sweet potatoes, hay, or wheat. It has a sour smell, is delicious, nutritious and digestible for cattle and sheep. The head of a big beef-farming company in China told Securities Times that commercial demand for silage is booming as companies like his replace small-scale "backyard" cattle growers. Last December China's customs authority opened trade in silage imported from Myanmar to address the tight supply. The beef tycoon said wheat silage is more expensive than other types of silage and expensive to transport, so he had never used wheat silage for  his cattle.

Renmin University Professor Zheng Fengtian told Global Times there are two main reasons why farmers are selling their wheat as silage. One is the poor quality and low yields of wheat expected by many farmers due to floods that delayed planting of the crop last fall, the weak state of seedlings, and problems with plant disease and pests. Zheng also cited a shortage of corn silage due to the high corn price last year that induced farmers to sell corn grown for silage as grain, tightening the supply of silage. Some livestock farms are unable to buy silage and may have temporarily begun buying wheat for silage, but Professor Zheng thinks this is not widespread. Another farmer told Securities Times that farmers anticipating a poor crop of wheat see an advantage to cutting their wheat fields now to avoid the peak summer harvest period and plant a corn crop in the wheat field earlier than usual that will have an extra month to grow and produce a higher yield in the fall. 

Still, Zheng thinks wheat should not be sold as silage and calls for a crackdown on people who "disrupt the nation's grain market." In this debate some people argue that farmers have a right to grow, harvest and sell their crops as they see fit, but Zheng says this is mistaken. Professor Zheng claims that only grain crops can be planted on subsidized "high-standard fields" and "permanent farmland," stipulations included in this year's communist party "number 1 document" which called for clarifying categories of rural land use and prioritizing grain production. 

While Zheng insists that land designated for grain cannot be used for feed, he acknowledges that corn is one of those grains--and it is used primarily for animal feed; the government has been subsidizing production of corn for silage, alfalfa and oat hay for years to fill the shortage of feed for dairy and beef cattle; and the government sold millions of tons of wheat from its reserves last year primarily to use as animal feed. According to Chinese Government's premier grain analysis group, only 90 million tons of the 130-140 million tons of wheat is used for human food. 

A Chinese social media post suggests that the destruction of wheat fields is an American plot to destroy China's food supply and thus conquer the country. Citing a story about a similar stratagem in China's "spring and autumn period," the author suspects that American companies are buying wheat silage at high prices as a sneaky way of destroying the wheat crop in a "food war." The author of the post disagreed with people who argue that the government has no business interfering with how farmers sell their crops, suggesting that they also support Ukraine, oppose the zero-covid policy, and support "lying flat." The post continues by praising the superiority of China's socialist model that features active intervention over the "stupid" American economic thinking that relies on markets to equilibrate supply and demand.

Ministry of Agriculture notice warns that it is investigating
destruction of wheat fields. The fonts are very
similar to 1960s and '70s propaganda posters.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Field Boss System Scrutinizes Vanishing Cropland

China has tasked a new network of field bosses (šö░ÚĽ┐) with watching for misuse of farmland as new statistics revealed huge losses of cropland in many provinces. The new system selects key people in village groups--the most basic rural unit--to watch over "permanent farmland" to ensure it is not converted to nonfarming uses or planted with non-grain crops. These grassroots field watchers report up to a field boss at the administrative village, who reports to a township field boss, who reports to a prefecture field boss official. 

The new farmland-watching system was launched in 2021 after a new national land survey discovered that China's cultivated land base was 5 percent less than had previously been reported in statistics (see table below). Many southern provinces had their cultivated land area cut by 20-to-30 percent after the survey. Major agricultural provinces like Shandong (-15%), Henan and Hebei (-7% each) had reductions. Top rice-producing provinces Hunan and Jiangxi had their cultivated land area cut about 12%. Cultivated area figures were raised for northeastern provinces and Xinjiang Autonomous Region where there have been longstanding disputes over land area, grassland and wetlands have been converted to crops, and other land has been reclaimed for cultivation by state farms.

According to Hunan Daily, the mayor of Xiaochaqiao Town in Hunan Province's Shaodong City explained that Zhenqingjiang Village demolished houses to recover 22 mu (about 2.5 acres) land now being planted in soybeans, pumpkins, and corn. The town's newly-established field boss system has a plan to recover 660 mu (109 acres) using "multiple measures" to "implement the strictest cultivated land protection system."

The hierarchical system is designed to map out all the land designated as "permanent farmland" and assign each "responsibility field" to a field boss to ensure full coverage. When an official discovers that farmland has been illegally occupied or converted to an unauthorized use, the field boss is responsible for reporting and dealing with it. 

An April Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs notice ordered officials to ensure that every plot of land is cultivated, and assured officials that fulfillment of this year's grain-planting plan would be included in evaluations of officials from city to county to town to village level. 

Hunan's Shaodong City reports having rectified 27 illegal uses of land and has budgeted 20 million yuan (about $3.2 million) to restore 12,700 mu (about 2,100 acres) of land by the end of June. Officials plan to go door to door handing out leaflets about land regulations, hang signs and banners, and broadcast daily to publicize the land protection program.

Besides construction of houses and factories, the land restoration program is concerned about planting of trees--for parks, scenic areas, and environmental buffers--creation of ponds and lakes, and planting of trees along rights-of-way for highways and high-speed railways. One article interpreted new regulations as a signal that farming use will now take precedence over natural resource protection when the two types of land use are in conflict. 

According to Farmers Daily, Guangxi Province began a "replacing trees with farming" and "replacing fruit with grain" campaign after launching its field boss system in 2021. Guangxi claims to have restored 170,000 mu (28,000 acres) of grain land and brought 128,700 mu of idle land into production. 

Beijing Municipality adopted the field boss system in 2021 as part of the 2020-35 comprehensive plan. Beijing used the results of the third national land survey to identify permanent basic agricultural fields and a cultivated land adjustment reserve, make sure quality complies with requirements and devise a  land use plan.

Beijing's land survey found less than half the amount of cultivated land that had previously been reported in statistical yearbooks. Orchard land was about 5% less than previously reported. On the other hand, the new land survey found Beijing Municipality's forest coverage was 30 percent more than had previously been reported.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Shanghai Food Reserves Missing in Action

In widely circulated videos choruses of hungry and frustrated Shanghai residents shouted from windows their requests to "give us food" and banged pots in unison after 5 weeks of virus-prevention lockdowns and food shortages. Beijing citizens have already cleaned out supermarkets in anticipation of their own lockdown. Meanwhile, China's food reserve seems to be missing in action and its leaders are preparing for an apparently even more serious imminent and unnamed disaster.

Chinese authorities have assured us that regulations require Chinese cities to maintain a 6-month supply of food reserves. Propaganda circulated in 2020 recited the 6-month requirement for food-deficit regions and 3-month requirement for grain-surplus regions to head off food hoarding during the first round of covid lockdowns two years ago. Another 2020 article claimed to refute "rumors" about insufficient food reserves by citing a 910-million-ton reserve storage capacity and annual grain production of 650 million tons while acknowledging that there is no public information on how much is actually held in food reserves because they are a state secret. Two years ago this second article bragged that "we have no worries [about food], but other countries do" because of the country's big grain reserves.

Shanghai food reserves, circulated by The Paper in 2020.

Interestingly, there have been no reports about official food reserves during the April 2022 lockdown. There are scattered reports of government food distribution in Shanghai, but no citywide plan and no mention of Shanghai's food reserves. It seems like this would be the time for the Shanghai grain and food reserve bureau and the city's branch of Sinograin--the national food reserve management company--to trumpet their important role during an emergency. But neither organization's web site has any news about feeding Shanghai. I could not even access the Shanghai bureau's web site. Sinograin said last month it had stepped up its efforts to test imported grain and logistics workers for covid virus, a measure that would have constricted the food supply. 

Meanwhile, Heilongjiang Province is sending 3,000 metric tons of rice to feed Shanghai and Jilin Province pledged to send 1,000 metric tons of rice. If Shanghai is required to have a 6-month supply of food reserves, why are relatively poor provinces in the northeast region of the country sending food aid to one of China's richest cities? 

China's National Grain and Commodity Reserves Administration held an alarming disaster preparation videoconference on April 27 where authorities announced that the country faces a grim and serious natural disaster situation. Workers were told that they have a big responsibility to ensure provisions in case of disaster to "welcome the victory of the communist party's 20th national congress." There was no indication of what prospective disaster may be more serious than Shanghai's 5-week lockdown.

Maybe there's no talk about food reserves because last year's crackdown on food reserve corruption uncovered fraudulent reporting, old, stale grain held in reserves, and unsafe storage that led to insect infestation and explosions. In March, the Grain and Commodity Reserves Administration held a training meeting for a nationwide inspection of food reserves. Sichuan Province's inspection will check up on the "truthfulness of reserve quantities," the quality of the reserves, and the safety of the storage facilities.  

The Heilongjiang rice donation is being supplied by 3 companies--half of the donated rice will come from Singapore-based Yihai Kerry--with no mention of the government's commodity reserve bureau or its grain reserve management company. 

The latest propaganda trope in today's state media is that supply of daily necessities and virus prevention must be coordinated, and distribution over the "last 100 meters" must be tackled. The city of Beijing is said to have prepared less than a month's reserve of rice, flour, oils and vegetables for a possible lockdown--that's a lot less than the 6-month requirement. The "reserves" are held in specialized warehouses, wholesale markets and supermarkets. On April 22, Shanghai's city government issued a notice calling on food business operators to step up their procurement of food and other necessities. The commerce ministry is featured in this article and there is no mention of the food reserve administration or the grain reserve company. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Forecasting as Propaganda: China's Falling Soybean imports

China will import fewer soybeans and less corn in the next ten years, according to projections issued by China's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) at its annual agricultural outlook conference held April 20. An examination of the track record of these projections indicates that they are a vision of what Chinese leaders would like the future to be, not an objective forecast of what will happen.

MARA expects the country's soybean imports to decline from 96.1 million metric tons (mmt) in 2021 to 85.84 mmt in 2031. This is the first time MARA has projected a decline in soybean imports since Ministry first began issuing future projections in 2014. 

Although these projections are issued by a so-called "early warning committee," they have never proven to be accurate. The projections seem to reflect what Chinese leaders would like the future to look like. In particular, the projections are evidently massaged to minimize imports. 

Each year from 2015 to 2021 MARA released projections predicting a tiny 10-year increase in soybean imports, and each year actual imports exceeded the projection. Then the projections were ratcheted upward the following year when it became apparent that actual imports grew faster than MARA had predicted. For example, back in 2015 MARA projected that soybean imports would rise to 80.8 mmt in 2020, but imports actually reached 100.3 mmt that year, nearly 20 mmt more than had been projected five years earlier. MARA's projected stream of imports looked like a series of parallel lines--until this year's projection.

China Ministry of Agriculture projections issued at various "agricultural outlook conferences."

At last week's outlook conference, MARA revealed its new assessment that soybean imports are on a long-term declining trend. MARA estimated that China's soybean imports will fall from 96.5 mmt to 95 mmt between 2001 and 2022, then continue declining to reach 85.8 mmt in 2031. This time MARA has ratcheted its projection of soybean consumption downward, and it predicts that use of soybeans by the crushing industry will increase by only 4 mmt between now and 2031. MARA also assumes domestic soybean output will more than double from last year's 16.4 mmt to 35.1 mmt in 2031, boosted by soybean subsidies, high prices, and a corn-soybean intercropping strategy. MARA also projected a substantial boost in China's exports of soybeans.

MARA's "early warning" committee did not warn anyone about the spike in China's corn imports during the last two years. MARA issued projections in April 2020 that predicted a small decrease in corn imports to 4.25 mmt that year, but corn imports soared to 11.3 mmt in 2020--a matter of months after the projections were issued (the projections appear to be based on calendar years). At last year's conference MARA projected an increase in corn imports to 20 mmt in 2021, but actual 2021 corn imports were 28.3 mmt. 

Consistent with past form, MARA's latest projections predict that corn imports will plummet in coming years. Interestingly, corn imports will remain above the 7.2-mmt tariff rate quota until 2027. In view of MARA's history of low-balling corn import forecasts, this projection suggests that China is really short of corn. 

Projections made by China Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

This year's soybean and corn projections reflect a strong political push to reduce China's reliance on imported soybeans and corn. The campaign began in 2018 with new standards for reducing corn and soybean meal in animal feed issued as a strategy for coping with reducing supplies during the trade war with the United States. In 2021, MARA issued a more detailed document detailing alternatives to corn and soybean meal was issued, and feed companies were goaded to research new feed formulations. A deluge of documents, meetings, and news articles shows that there is strong political momentum behind the soybean campaign, in particular. This month, MARA's National Animal Husbandry Station and associations for feed, livestock, and dairy industries sent out a letter asking them to submit examples of promising substitutes for soybean meal.  

Use of corn in animal feed fell from 52% in 2017 to 39% in 2021, according to an article in Economic Daily last year. The article said soybean meal use fell from 17.9% to 15.6%. China's feed industry association has begun including the percentage of corn and soybean meal in animal feed in its monthly reports. The latest report in March 2022 said corn was 36.1% of complete formulated feed and soybean meal comprised 13.1% of formulated feed and concentrate feed combined.

According to the presentation at the outlook conference, soybean prices were up 32 percent year-on-year due to factors in Brazil, Indonesia and Ukraine, discouraging consumption. The wheat presentation said a release of wheat reserves for use in animal feed and the use of "some wheat imports" for feed was motivated by high corn prices and also reduced need for soybean meal (that need was diminished by the higher protein content of wheat vs. corn.). The MARA's wheat analyst said feed use of wheat will decline 34 percent in 2022 and keep declining in the future. 

MARA also tends to underestimate pork imports. Back in 2015, MARA expected pork imports to increase gradually to 1 mmt by 2024. Pork imports hit 2.4 mmt a year later, in 2016. In 2018-19, China had a massive outbreak of African swine fever that cratered pork supplies. As pigs were dying en masse in 2019, MARA projected that pork imports could go up to 2 mmt in 2020, but imports actually shot up to 4.39 mmt. This year, MARA projects a sharp decline in 2022 pork imports--a plausible outcome in view of the decline in pork prices this year. However, MARA is projecting that pork imports will remain elevated at about 2.5 mmt annually--much higher than they have projected in past years--until 2025 when they gradually decline. 

Projections made by China Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

MARA has become more pessimistic about pork consumption over the years. Back in 2015, MARA expected pork consumption to rise at a robust pace of about 1 mmt annually, reaching 66.5 mmt in 2024. Actual consumption never reached that level, and MARA has been dialing back its projections. This year's projection of pork consumption is essentially flat, at about 57 mmt, close to the consumption level back in 2015. 

Projections made by China Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

The outlook conference presentations indicated booming consumption of non-traditional animal proteins. While per-capita poultry consumption is projected to rise a modest 1 kilogram over 10 years, MARA noted that consumption of chicken is increasing while duck is decreasing and goose is steady. Chicken already accounts for two-thirds of China's poultry consumption, and "white feather" chickens are outpacing consumption of traditional "yellow feather" native breeds, the poultry presentation said. Chicken feet account for nearly half of poultry imports. MARA thinks the decline in pork prices since last year will discourage poultry consumption in 2022.

MARA's projections are always presented with complex equations, tables and charts that appear to be highly sophisticated mechanistic forecasts, but they do not appear to be much of an improvement over what could be accomplished by using a ruler and a pencil to extrapolate past trends. The projections are supposed to provide "early warnings" of food supply and demand problems, but they never show any alarming phenomena. To the contrary, the projections appear to be massaged to tell the public there is no reason to worry about the food supply. The headlines in communist party media about this year's projections emphasized that China's self-sufficiency is going to improve and the food supply is stable and reliable. 

A presentation of the Chinese "early warning" projection model
is decorated with mathematical equations, charts and tables.