How soybeans became China’s most powerful weapon in Trump’s trade war

Soybeans may not seem all that useful in a war. Nonetheless they’ve become China’s most important weapon in its ever-worsening trade conflict with the U.S.

China, the world’s biggest buyer of the crop, has reportedly stopped purchasing any American soybeans in retaliation for the Trump administration raising tariffs on US$250 billion of Chinese goods. This is very bad news for U.S. farmers.

While China’s targeting of soybeans may have come as something of a surprise to most Americans, to a professor of agricultural economics who studies international commodity markets for a living, this was not at all unexpected.

Even before the conclusion of the 2016 presidential race, trade analysts were already weighing the possibility that China might impose an embargo on U.S. soybean imports based on protectionist rhetoric from both candidates.

As a result, with the trade war in full swing, American soybean farmers are now among its biggest losers. Here are a few figures that show why.

Soybeans, by the numbers

Soybeans are a crucial part of the global food chain, particularly as a source of protein in the production of hogs and poultry.

The importance of China as a market for soybeans has been driven by an explosion in demand for meat as consumers switch from a diet dominated by rice to one where pork, poultry and beef play an important part. Chinese production of meat from those three animals surged 250% from 1986 to 2012 and is projected to increase another 30% by the end of the current decade. However, China is unable to produce enough animal feed itself, hence the need to import soybeans from the United States and Brazil.

In 2017, the U.S. accounted for $21.4 billion worth of global soybean exports, the second largest after its main competitor Brazil, which exported $25.7 billion.

Meanwhile, in 2017 China accounted for the lion’s share of global soybean imports at $39.6 billion, or two-thirds of the total.

Back in 2017, that was good news for American farmers, when U.S. exports made up about a third of Chinese purchases, or $13.9 billion. That made soybeans the United States’ second-most valuable export to China after airplanes.