China has been expanding the amount of land used to grow soybeans and diversifying its source of imports to reduce reliance on imports from the US – its second-largest supplier – amid a yearlong trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
In Northeast China, the soybean planting season is nearing an end. In Heilongjiang Province, a northeastern region that accounts for half of China’s total soybean output, the acreage for soybean farming has seen steady growth since the beginning of 2019, when the central government released its first policy statement highlighting efforts to increase soybean production.
Technology for soybean seed breeding and planting has also been applied to improve productivity and yields of soybean oil and protein, industry insiders said, boding well for China’s goal to improve soybean self-sufficiency and whittling down US imports.
Mao Yugui, a farmer at a village in Fujin city of Heilongjiang, a traditional production base for soybeans, has decided to plant soybeans on all of his farmland this year thanks to the local government’s stimulus measures and a bounce back of soybean prices.
“Many farmers used to plant corn because the crop yields bigger profits than soybeans. But this gap has been narrowing in the past two to three years, which combined with a lingering drought that hit Northeast China, creates incentives for farmers to return to cultivating soybeans,” Mao said.
Another farmer surnamed Hou based in Heihe, Heilongjiang, also noted that in terms of fertilization and disease prevention, it is easier to manage soybean farmland than corn. “Planting soybeans also helps improve soil fertility and nutrients,” Hou noted.
In Fujin, soybean acreage has exceeded 1.5 million mu (100,000 hectares) this year, up 30 percent, or 370,000 mu, compared with that of 2018, local officials disclosed. They have made the cultivation of high-protein soybeans a priority for government work this year.
On February 19, the State Council, China’s cabinet, released its first policy document of 2019, which included a plan for soybean farming revitalization. The document was widely deemed by the market an indicator of the country’s policy priorities.
At a press conference of the State Council in February, officials also noted that China will step up efforts to expand cultivation of soybeans, accelerate research on nurturing high-yield crops and improve management of soybean production to rejuvenate the industry.
Under the policy guidance, large planters and rural cooperatives in Heilongjiang have been making efforts to shift to soybean cultivation. Yelin Modern agricultural mechanical cooperative, located in a county under the administration of Heihe, has planted more than 40,000 mu of soybeans, up 10,000 mu from last year. Another cooperative named Linfeng also planted soybeans on 7,000 mu of farmland, compared with 1,500 mu in 2018.
To further reinforce farmers’ confidence in growing soybeans, some local governments in Heilongjiang also launched pilot programs that provide farmers with insurance to ensure their basic income against a slew of risks such as fluctuations in productivity and prices, as well as natural disasters.
Subsidies to soybean farmers have also shot up, leading to a growing gap compared with corn subsidies. Sun Fu’an, an owner of a large farm in Hailun, Heilongjiang, said that the government has offered 340 yuan ($49.17) per mu in subsidies to soybean planters, about 295 yuan higher than corn, the China Central Television reported.
As such, agricultural authorities in Heilongjiang estimated that there will be a 10-percent increase in soybean acreage in the province in 2019, up from 53.51 million mu in 2018.
Across China, major soybean growing areas in Central China’s Henan Province and East China’s Anhui Province also showed great interest in supporting the nationwide soybean rejuvenation plan.
Under the plan, China’s soybean cultivation area is expected to increase to 140 million mu by 2020, while the soybean self-sufficiency rate will also rise by 1 percentage point by 2020.
And based on the current progress, it is estimated that in 2019, China will see 15-percent growth in soybean farmland, meeting that target, China National Radio reported.
Improving yield and value
Farmers and research institutes are also accelerating research to develop soybean varieties with high protein content and high yields per unit.
Fu Zhengwu, a soybean planter based in Hailun, said that he has cultivated a variety developed by a local research institute that can yield as much as 200 kilograms of soybeans per mu with a protein content of more than 40 percent. The average soybean yield per mu in Heilongjiang was 167.5 kilograms, the Global Times learned from industry insiders.
The local academy of agricultural sciences in Heilongjiang has also been testing two soybean varieties that could yield 280 kilograms and 273 kilograms of soybeans per mu, respectively, according to media reports.
“What kinds of soybean seeds should be planted? And on which plots? How to apply fertilizer? Local agricultural experts will give us advice on these questions and their suggestions have significantly boosted soybean yields,” said a representative from a local agricultural cooperative in Bei’an surnamed Li.
A spokesperson from an agricultural authority in Heilongjiang said the government is promoting an innovative soybean cultivation technique, featuring a wide range and dense planting, which could raise yields per unit by 30 percent compared with traditional models.
Li Guoxiang, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told the Global Times Sunday that China has the technology and capacity to bump up domestic soybean supply to make up for imports from the US.
China’s soybean imports declined 12.2 percent year-on-year to 31.75 million tons in the first five months of 2019, according to customs data. In May alone, China’s imports of soybeans went down 24 percent year-on-year.
China is the world’s largest buyer of US soybeans. The country imports about 90 percent of its soybeans, with a third of the imports shipped from the US.
China’s soybean imports from the US dived 70.6 percent year-on-year to 4.31 million tons in the first four months of 2019 as tariffs on US soybean shipments continued to weigh, according to data from China’s Ministry of Commerce.
While US farmers have been scrambling under an export collapse, industry observers suggested that China could also import soybeans from Russia, South America and other countries along the Belt and Road Initiative.
From January to April, imports from Brazil and Argentina soared 46.8 percent and 2,300 percent year-on-year, respectively, MOFCOM data showed.
More for food processing
Although soybean cultivation is on the rise, selling them after harvesting has been a headache for Heilongjiang farmers.
“Fewer ‘agents’ have been coming to the countryside to buy soybeans in recent years due to meager profits and higher sales risks, so we’re worried about poor market demand,” a local farmer said. Traditionally, soybeans produced in Heilongjiang were usually purchased by processing companies, private grain dealers and government institutions for state reserves.
China uses soybeans to produce oil and make soymeal, an animal feed ingredient. Industry insiders urged local food processing manufacturers to use more homegrown soybeans – which have an edge in protein content – to replace imports and open up local sales, which in turn will also stimulate farmers’ interest in expanding soybean cultivation.
Heihe Nonggeng Health Food Co has been processing soybeans into soybean spaghetti and hot-pot noodles. The soybean products now are exporting to a number of countries such as Germany, with an export volume between 30 to 60 tons every month, said Li Xuefen, the company’s sales manager.
Another biotechnology company in Heihe has also launched “soybean ice cream” that replaces animal protein with soybean vegetable protein.
Zhang Dekun, chairman of Heihe Kunpeng Biotechnology Co, said that the soy ice cream has become a market hit. “We sold about 9 million ice cream bars within two months, and we plan to launch more soybean-related foods in the next step,” Zhang said.