China’s plan to levy a 25 percent tariff on imports of U.S. soybeans may come as something of a surprise to most Americans. But to a professor of agricultural economics who studies international commodity markets for a living, the move 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.
And now that risk of a trade war is reality, and American soybean farmers may be among the biggest losers.
Soybeans are a crucial part of the global food chain, particularly as a source of protein in the production of hogs and poultry.
In 2016, the U.S. accounted for $22.8 billion worth of global soybean exports, the most of any country. Its nearest competitor is Brazil, which exported $21 billion.
Meanwhile, China accounts for the lion’s share of global soybean imports at $34 billion, or two-thirds of the total.
American exports made up about a third of that, or $12.4 billion, making soybeans the United States’ second-most valuable export to China after airplanes.
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 percent from 1986 to 2012 and is projected to increase another 30 percent 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.
That’s why the tariffs have tremendous potential to hurt farmers in the Midwest. The largest exporters of soybeans are Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska and Ohio, all of which will suffer from the tariffs.
Not only do farmers stand to lose out by giving up market share to Brazilian farmers, but soybean prices will probably fall as well, hurting incomes and creating a double whammy for Midwest farms.
This is of course why the Chinese chose to place a tariff on U.S. soybeans in the first place. Farmers will hurt a lot, and soybeans are produced in states where many of them voted for Donald Trump. China’s hope, presumably, is that farmers will lobby the administration to step back from the brink of a trade war.