China's corn imports could quadruple this year, to way above previous forecasts, to replenish stocks which have fallen way below official targets, US industry officials said.
The US Grains Council, which in October pegged China's 2011 corn imports at 2m-3m tonnes, said that the figure could reach 3m-9m tonnes, questioning estimates from some other analysts that a bumper autumn harvest had curtailed the country's needs.
"Estimates given to us were that China is short 10m-15m tonnes in stocks and will need to purchase corn this year," Terry Vinduska, the USGC chairman, said, following a council visit to China.
"We learned the government normally keeps stocks at 30% but they are currently a little over 5%, which may lead to imports of 3m-9m tonnes."
Imports at this level could see China vie with South Korea for the title of world's top corn importer, after historically importing very little of the grain, further squeezing supplies of the grain which are already at their tightest since the 1990s.
Demand is being boosted by China's rocketing economic growth, running at an annual pace of 8-10%, the USGC said. Corn is processed into chemicals from ethanol to sweeteners to lysine, a dietary supplement, besides being used as an animal feed in a country with an increasingly carnivorous diet.
Nonetheless, corn futures moved little in Chicago on the USGC estimate, standing 0.3% higher at $6.64 ¼ a bushel at 12:15 GMT, if outperforming peers soybeans and wheat, which showed small declines.
Forecasts by the USGC, whose role is to promote America's grain exports, are often treated with some caution by investors.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates China's corn imports for 2010-11 at 1.0m tonnes, compared with a 14-year high of 1.3m tonnes the previous season.
However, separately, Barclays Capital dismissed the USDA estimate as "too conservative", given plentiful signals of tightness in Chinese supplies.
"Tightness in the domestic Chinese corn market has been reflected in myriad ways: high domestic prices; a pick-up in imports; weekly corn auctions; and China releasing corn from strategic reserves," the bank said.
"For 2010 as a whole, China stayed a net corn importer for seven consecutive months while corn imports for 2010 as a whole posted a 1781% year-on-year increase."