China food security: top soybean region Heilongjiang unveils plan to ramp up annual harvest

·4-min read

China’s largest soybean producing province has taken its first step to boost production in 2022, following Beijing’s recent warning about dependence on imports for a commodity regarded as essential to national food security.

The northeastern province of Heilongjiang, which produces about 40 per cent of China’s total soybean output and accounts for a similar level of acreage, has set a target of planting more than 666,667 hectares (1.6 million acres) of soybeans this year, according to provincial Communist Party chief Xu Qin.

Annual soybean output is expected to increase by 1.3 million tonnes, Xu said in an interview with state-owned Xinhua News Agency published on Saturday. The figure, if achieved, would be a nearly 8 per cent addition to the total national soybean yield in 2021.

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Heilongjiang’s move follows a call from President Xi Jinping for more planting of soybean and oil crops this year to safeguard grain security.

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“Ensuring the supply of primary products is a major strategic issue, the rice bowls of the Chinese people must be firmly held in our own hands at all times and filled with Chinese grains,” Xi said in a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee in late December, according to Xinhua.

China’s top decision makers have warned that shortages of primary products, including soybeans, iron ore and crude oil, could become a “grey rhino” risk – an obvious yet ignored threat – for the world’s No 2 economy.

China must establish a “strategic baseline” to ensure self-sufficiency in key resources, and while the country should make use of both domestic and external markets, it must not cross a “safety line” for imports, Xi told the central economic work conference last month.

More than 80 per cent of the soybeans China consumes each year are imported, mostly from Brazil and the United States, since the country cannot produce enough to support its large and rapidly growing livestock industry.

The reliance is seen as a weak link for the country’s agricultural sector and overall food security. Soybeans became a major battlefield between Beijing and Washington during the Trump-era trade war. Buying more American farm goods, including soybeans, is an important commitment made by the Chinese government in the phase one trade deal.

China imported 8.57 million tonnes of soybeans in November, surging 67.7 per cent from the previous month, but still down 10.6 per cent from a year ago, the latest customs data showed.

During the first 11 months of the year, China imported nearly 87.7 million tonnes of soybeans, 5.6 per cent less than a year ago.

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Of those, some 26.2 million tonnes were imported from the US, up 47.4 per cent from the same period in 2020, although China’s purchases of US agricultural products remained well below the target made in the interim trade agreement.

“The high degree of import dependence means China does not have a say in the international market for soybeans,” said Wang Yanru, senior analyst at soy industry portal Dadoutianxia.com. She added increasing acreage would help stabilise prices for domestic soybeans.

China’s agricultural ministry told local governments late in 2021 that enlarging soybean and oil crop planting was “a major political task” to be completed this year.

Recovering soybean planting acreage in China’s northeast is at the top of the to-do list.

China’s annual domestic soybean yield shrank 16.4 per cent from a year earlier to 16.4 million tonnes in 2021, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

Soybean acreage declined by 14.8 per cent, or 1.4 million hectares last year, “mainly because the income from soybeans is lower than that of corn, leading to a lower willingness among farmers to plant”, the bureau said.

Heilongjiang’s planting plan could make up half of China’s total decline in soybean acreage last year, but it is still not enough for the province to return to its height of about 6.7 million hectares in 2020.

Chinese authorities are pushing for a higher per unit yield for key crops like soybeans, possibly through an acceleration in genetically modified seeds.

However, official data showed soybean yield per unit area fell by 1.8 per cent in 2021.

In the past year, the country has moved closer towards the commercialisation of genetically modified varieties, including by overhauling regulations.

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