China needs clear crop data: USDA analyst

CHICAGO (Reuters) — The U.S. Agriculture Department’s top analyst on world crop statistics says China needs to improve transparency of its grains data for world policy makers and markets.

“There is considerable room for improvement for China to be somewhat more forthcoming with the data that they do collect,” Gerald Bange, who retires on May 31 after two decades as head of the USDA’s World Agricultural Outlook Board, told Reuters in an interview. “We know they have more information than they are projecting.”

China, where modernization has transformed world commodity demand, now buys well over half of all soybeans shipped by the United States, the world’s biggest food exporter. Its demand for U.S. grain, edible oils, meat and cotton has become a central focus for world markets.

Bange, a 44-year USDA veteran, says Chinese authorities provide far more information today than when he started working with them in 1983. But the opaqueness and sourcing of their data often remains a puzzle, he says.

“There’s no clearance or coordination point. We’d certainly like to see that. Beijing does not have as tight control over everything there as people seem to think they do.”

Bange spoke to Reuters last Friday in the first interview after he announced his retirement.

Official crops and stocks statistics in China are provided by separate groups: the National Bureau of Statistics, the Ministry of Agriculture and China National Grains & Oils Information Center. So it is difficult to determine which one has the best numbers, Bange said.

Bange leads the team producing USDA’s monthly World Agriculture Supply & Demand Estimates report, widely regarded as the most authoritative forecast by analysts, traders, farmers and others in the global agriculture industry.

Bange, who remembers the days when USDA analysts coloured in paper crop maps by hand, says WASDE fact-gathering now uses every high-tech tool available, from satellite imagery and complex meteorological data to global monitoring of country reports.

But the key remains “on the ground reporting,” he said, from USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, whose attaches are posted worldwide from Beijing to Brussels and Sao Paulo to Singapore.

“Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria — they’re not easy to get information on either. We do have people who travel in those areas,” Bange said. “Lots of different numbers come out of Argentina which we have to sort out. It’s a common problem and certainly not limited to China.”

He added: “We focus on China because you’re looking at a country that is importing 69-70 million tons of soybeans from all over the world.”

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