China is on the brink of a "new era" of corn importing which will see its intake surge from, effectively, zero to 15m tonnes within five years, a leading analyst has said.
The world's second-ranked consumer of the grain, whose return to imports in the spring sent Chicago prices soaring, has "gotten to the turning point" where it will regularly buy abroad, Hanver Li, the chairman and chief executive of Shanghai JC Intelligence, said.
Imports will grow from 1.7m tonnes this year to 5.8m tonnes next year, and to 15m tonnes in 2014-15.
These figures are far higher than the 1.3m tonnes of the grain that the US Department of Agriculture believes China will buy-in in 2014-15, and would place the country only narrowly behind Japan at the top of the corn importers' league.
China imported about 50,000 tonnes of corn in 2008-09, according to USDA estimates.
Mr Li, who was speaking to a meeting of the US Grains Council, said that China's demand for corn, used largely as livestock feed, was "simply outstripping" domestic production.
Chinese would eat an average of 63.1 kilogrammes of meat apiece in 2105, up 6.9% from a decade before, while milk consumption will soar by more than 50%.
USDA's China corn import forecasts
2010-11: 100,000 tonnes
2011-12: 218,000 tonnes
2012-13: 457,000 tonnes
2013-14: 817,000 tonnes
2010-11: 1.32m tonnes
2019-20: 4.10m tonnes
Sources: July Wasde report, Baseline forecasts
"Rural areas will drive meat demand, while urban centres will drive milk," Mr Li said, according to USGC reports of the meeting.
While production would be improved by government initiatives, these would take time to bear fruit and by then "my hair will all turn grey", he added.
"We've come to the conclusion that a new era of Chinese corn importing is here."
The comments come three months after China stunned markets by restarting corn imports in significant quantities for the first time in 15 years, as domestic prices soared, reaching record highs in some areas.
Prices have remained elevated, standing at 1,976 remninbi ($291) a tonne - equivalent to about $7.40 a bushel, twice the Chicago price - on China's Dalian exchange on Monday.
Many observers believe that last year's Chinese harvest was considerably lower than the official estimate of 164m tonnes, with a system of production-based subsidies blamed for encouraging provincial authorities to exaggerate harvest results.
Shanghai JC Intelligence, which pegged the crop at around 140m tonnes, was among the first to raise questions over China's harvest estimates.
The group believes that China has less corn in stock than government estimates show, Mr Li said, adding that this explained a rapid jump in China's imports of distiller's dried grains with solubles, a residue from corn-ethanol plants which is also used as a livestock feed.
China is expected to import 1.5m-1.8m tonnes of US distiller's grains this year, he said, a figure which would make it the largest buyer.