Soybean talks focus on biotech issues

Updated: 2014-04-10 11:15

By Jack Freifelder in New York (China Daily USA)

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Biotechnological advances in the global trade of soybeans have been a source of uncertainty during recent trade talks in China, but the issue is unlikely to stem the rising Chinese interest in the alternative protein source, according to a group of agricultural officials.

Paul Burke, regional director of North Asia for the US Soybean Export Council (USSEC), said China is the largest global importer of soybeans and despite recent hang-ups the country remains "an important customer" for American soybean farmers.

"The US soybean industry has been actively engaged in China for 32 years," Burke said. "Soybean farmers want very much to be viewed as a partner and part of China's overall solution to realizing its important goals of achieving sustainable food security and food safety."

The US is the world's largest exporter of soybeans, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Other significant players are Brazil, Argentina and China.

China, the main destination for US-produced soybeans, imported close to $13 billion worth of soybeans from the US in 2012 - an amount just shy of 60 million tons. The total made soybeans one of the largest commodities the US exported to China in terms of dollar value in 2012, according to the USSEC.

The International Soy Growers Alliance (ISGA), a group that comprises soybean producers from the US, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, have been meeting with agricultural officials over the last few weeks in China to promote the infrastructure for continued import growth in the world's second-largest economy.

Burke said the five countries taking part in the ISGA's first trip to China represent 90 percent of the world's soy production.

"In order for global soybean producers to meet growth, they will need access to new technologies that allow them to increase yields without increasing inputs and costs," Burke said. "Some of these solutions will include introduction of new biotech soybean traits."

Soybean trade totals are expected to hit record highs in the 2013-2014 season. China's soybean consumption is expected to near 70 million tons, according to USDA and Oil World forecasts.

Brazil, the second leading soybean exporter, is said to be harvesting a record crop too, according to CONAB, a division of Brazil's Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply. Soybean production in Brazil is expected to approach 80 million tons.

Mark Ash, an agricultural economist with the USDA, said though China is one of the top trading partners for soybeans the approval process for biotech varieties of the crop has been a sticking point.

"A unified position of the major exporters of soybeans is needed to convey the idea that biotechnology is not only a common worldwide production practice but also a safe one," Ash said.