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Soybean importers fight back - by growing their own

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Soybean importers are fighting back.

China, the world's biggest importer of the oilseed, may be poised for flat imports of the oilseed, ending a run of growth stretching back more than a decade.

Oil World on Thursday forecast the country's imports holding steady at 93m tonnes in 2017-18, starting in November, sapped by large carry-in inventories, after the buying spree of recent months, and by a rise in domestic production.

The influential analysis group pegged Chinese production in 2017-18 rising by roughly 4m tonnes to 16m-17m tonnes, fuelled by farmers' shift away from corn, as encouraged by a Beijing subsidy shake-up after a guaranteed pricing scheme saw the creation of huge state inventories of the grain.

(For the record, the US Department of Agriculture, whose data set market benchmarks, this week lifted its forecast for China's 2017-18 imports by 1.0m tonnes to 95.0m tonnes, on a harvest figure of 14.0m tonnes, although this upgrade did run counter to analysis by its Beijing bureau.)

'Major step forward'

The European Union is taking steps to curtail its needs too.

Soybean harvest forecasts for top EU growing countries, 2017, change on year, and (on five-year average)

Italy: 1.08m tonnes, +0.2%, (+23.2%)

France: 400,000 tonnes, +11.5%, (+79.3%)

Romania: 350,000 tonnes, +32.7%, (+69.6%)

Croatia: 210,000 tonnes, -10.1%, (+46.7%)

Source: European Commission

Rapeseed, the main oilseed grown by EU farmers themselves, has a relatively low meal content, being more generous in vegetable oil than soybeans.

This week, in France, Avril, the oilseed processing-to-meat group, and producers' co-operative Euralis launched a tie-up for a soybean crushing plant which they claimed represented a "major step forward in the development of a 100% French-grown soy network".

The plant will process a modest 25,000-tonnes of French-grown soybeans a year – a modest amount compared with the EU's overall soymeal needs.

However, it is a signal of the bloc's mounting interest in growing its own soybean output, rather than relying so heavily on imports of beans and meal.

Growing output

Indeed, EU soybean production has, after flat-lining since the 1990s at 1.0m-1.5m tonnes, shown a marked increase over the past three years.

According to the European Commission, EU soybean output this year will reach 2.59m tonnes, a modest increase year on year but 44% ahead of the five-year average.

Italy will remain the bloc's top producer, with a harvest of 1.08m tonnes, a rise of 0.2% year on year, although 23% above the five-year average.

A faster growth trends are being seen in the likes of Romania, with output pegged at 350,000 tonnes, up 33% year on year, and France, where production will rise 11.5% t0 400,000 tonnes.

'Excellent yields'

The increasing focus on domestic production is being encouraged by, besides the ready demand for soybeans, the development of seed varieties, stemming from research in the likes of Ukraine, which has better enabled a crop native to the tropics to grow in more temperate climes.

UK group Soya UK, for instance, says that "the varieties available now are light-years ahead of the varieties available 15 years ago.

"They offer earlier harvests, excellent yields and produce quality soybeans."

Yield prospects have also been helped by improved seen treatments and coatings, which have improved germination rates.

Soybeans vs rapeseed

However, there are extra financial incentives too.

In the UK, in particular, results from the default oilseed, rapeseed, have been depressed by the surge in populations of cabbage stem flea beetle enabled by the EU ban on neonicotinoid insecticides.

Soybeans, as a legume rather than a brassica, offer a different pest risk – besides fixing nitrogen in the soil, so being a less expensive crop to grow.

Furthermore, the European Commission's revised the Common Agricultural Policy subsidy rules, in incentivising farmers to grow a range of crops, have encouraged adoption of soybeans too.

USDA officials earlier this year, forecasting that harvested area of soybeans "will increase in all EU member states except Croatia", attributed the crop's growing popularity in the main to the Common Agricultural Policy's "ecological focus areas and coupled payments".

By Mike Verdin

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