China was very hungry in 2020

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Trade wars, pigs to feed, anxiety generated by the Covid-19 pandemic: China has boosted its cereal imports in 2020, animating world agricultural markets, and causing prices to soar.

From January to August, China’s total imports increased year over year 137% for wheat (4.99 million tonnes), 50% for corn (5.59 Mt) and 15% for soybeans (64.74 Mt), according to Chinese customs.

“For corn, prices have been observed at their highest since 2014, it is demand from China that is disrupting the face of world trade,” recently said Marc Zribi, head of the grains and sugar unit at FranceAgriMer.

France, for example, is not going to complain, it which exported more than 1.5 Mt of tonnes of wheat to China last year. Chinese appetite this year has enabled French grain producers, faced with competition from the Baltic countries for their first outlet for wheat, Algeria, to resist well.

“The first element of increase” in imports of cereals, European in particular, by China, “it is Trump’s trade policy, this is what made China want to diversify its origins”, recently noted a broker requesting anonymity during an interview with AFP.

The “much faster than expected” reconstitution of the Chinese pig herd decimated by the African swine fever epidemic is another reason. China has built a series of huge factory farms on several floors.

“At the end of September, the number of live pigs was 370 million heads, or 84% of the total at the end of 2017. Since February 2020, the number has been increasing steadily (…). Over one year, the number of heads returned to the increase in July for the first time since 2017, ”indicates the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture on its site.

“The Chinese pig sector, affected in the past two years by African swine fever, has started to recover this year, which has increased demand for maize,” added Mr. Huang Jikun, of the China Center for Agricultural Policy in China. Peking University.

Fear of food shortage

A third factor has boosted Chinese imports: uncertainties linked to the health crisis. “It is clear that for the Chinese government, it was necessary to minimize the risks” of food shortage, underlines Sébastien Abis, director of the Demeter agricultural think tank and researcher at the Iris Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

This concern is all the stronger since the “great famine” of the Maoist era, between 1959 and 1961 approximately, “traumatized the generation which is in power today in China”, underlines Mr. Abis.

If China is today almost number one in all agricultural productions, it has also become the leading importer in these same markets and “the 5 to 10% of basic products which it lacks represent very quickly significant volumes on the scene. international ”, thus shaking up agricultural markets, underlines Mr. Abis.

The exception to this increased trade: imports of barley fell 12% from January to August. This counter-current trend could be explained by the sanctions taken by Beijing against Canberra for having requested an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

The Chinese brewery TsingTao, which currently imports malting barley from Australia, has therefore turned to French manufacturers, the world’s leading barley producers. Which invoiced their merchandise at double the price, according to several experts interviewed by AFP.

While it is difficult to predict to what extent China’s buying fever will continue, it is certain, according to Sébastien Abis, that Beijing “will never give in on the issue of its national security and will have to automatically rely on the market. worldwide to complement its domestic production ”.

Will the West continue to benefit from it? The RCEP trade agreement concluded in mid-November by China and some fifteen countries in Asia and the Pacific, the world’s largest free trade treaty, “could be the prelude to a certain easing” on trade tensions in the zone, “particularly between Australia and China,” Zribi said.

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