China is the largest importer of soybeans and has been since 2000. China was once the largest exporter of soybeans, but flipped to a net importer in 1995. It may well be impossible for China to meet its demands for soybeans by producing more of its own. Passport Capital, an astute hedge fund, estimates that in order to grow enough soybeans to become self-sufficient, China would need to cultivate an area about the size of Nebraska.
That looks impossible against China’s arable land base, which has been in decline since 1988 — this despite the fact that China subsidizes agriculture. Another reason is the low level of water resources in China. (See the nearby chart ‘Who Has Water… And Who Doesn’t.’) Soybeans require a lot of water — 1,500 tonnes of water for one tonne of soybeans.
This chart is telling. Who has lots of water? Brazil. So it is no surprise to discover that the increase in demand for soybeans from China has largely been met by increasing soybean acreage planted in Brazil. (Brazil is the second-largest exporter of soybeans in the world, behind the United States and ahead of Argentina and Paraguay.)
The easiest way for China to get around its water shortage is to import soybeans. By importing soybeans, Passport calculates that China is effectively importing 14% of its water needs.
So now we are in a position to connect some dots. China’s increasing population and affluence will drive its soybean imports. These imports will come mainly from Brazil. And Brazil, as it converts more arable land to producing farmland, will need a lot of potash and phosphate.
What is true of soybeans is also true of wheat and corn and rice and other agricultural commodities. We’ll need more of all of them. And all of them face the same challenges for water and land. All of them require lots of fertilizer.
By Chris Mayer