Competition grows for China’s food imports

The Asian country is making a conscious effort to diversify its agricultural suppliers, which may hurt traditional exporters

China is diversifying its agricultural trading partners and that will force traditional suppliers to employ new tactics, says the United States Department of Agriculture.

“In contrast to the past, when the United States was among just a handful of suppliers, the United States now faces growing international competition in China,” stated the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service in a recent report.

“This competition will become even more fierce in the future as China widens its import base and domestic food and ag products become more sophisticated.”

Canada is also facing intensified competition in that important market, said Neil Townsend, chief market analyst with FarmLink Marketing Solutions.

“It’s something we should be concerned about,” he said.

He recalls looking in awe at the vegetable oil section of a grocery store during a recent visit to China.

“It’s something to behold. It’s like an entire wall of every oil you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” said Townsend.

Most of the oils contained some sort of front-of-package health claim. If one of those claims suddenly takes hold it can quickly tilt demand away from a product like Canadian canola oil, he said.

According to the USDA, China’s diversification trend began in earnest during the last decade but has really intensified the past couple of years due to the rising middle class and its appetite for an increasingly diverse and affordable diet.

African swine fever, bilateral trade tensions and COVID-19 have reinforced China’s push to diversify its supply chains, stated the USDA.

The Canadian Meat Council agrees with that assessment.

“Over the past two years, China has been diversifying its list of suppliers because of the huge protein deficit caused by African swine fever, which has devastated their pig herds,” the group said in an email.

“The increased buy is to secure supply and manage inflation.”

Unfortunately, Canada’s sales of pork and beef to China were down considerably in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The USDA said China’s central government committed to “expand diverse import channels” in its 2020 agriculture policy document.

It has used similar language in that same document over the past five years. But this time it did not explicitly mention the One Belt One Road countries.

“This omission may signal a return to a broader approach to diversification,” said the USDA.

China’s General Administration of Customs has approved at least 100 new agricultural products from various countries in 2019 and 2020.

Bilateral agreements with countries like Australia, Peru and Chile have facilitated some of the new approvals.

China is now importing beef from Argentina, chicken from Brazil, wheat from France and corn from Ukraine.

That is causing increased competition for traditional exporters like the U.S. and Canada.

“In order to do business in this competitive landscape, U.S. exporters should consider taking steps to differentiate their products from the mainstream,” said the USDA.

It suggests that exporters should focus on the superior quality, safety and sustainability of U.S. products.

“As local consumers are increasingly focused on health and nutrition, they are willing to pay more for agricultural products featuring these characteristics,” said the USDA.

Townsend said that may work for products like beef and pork but he doesn’t think it will have much impact with grains, oilseeds and pulses.

“Brand Canada doesn’t seem to be the force that it was 20 or 30 years ago,” he said.

Townsend thinks Canada is missing that “one voice” like the Canadian Wheat Board to promote Canadian crops abroad.

He also noted that institutions like the Canadian Grain Commission are under attack by grain companies who want the CGC to stop being a service provider.

“Everybody is trying to weaken the CGC,” he said.

Townsend believes that will further erode Canada’s reputation as a provider of quality grain products.

Grain Growers of Canada was contacted for this article but did not respond.

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