China came up about $6 billion short of the $40 billion in U.S. agricultural products it agreed to purchase in the two-year trade deal it signed in January 2020 – but suddenly began making up a bit of that deficit after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as Chinese buyers scrambled to cover potential shortfalls of Ukrainian corn.

According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Friday, China booked ten shipments of American corn recently, plus 20 shipments of U.S. soybeans to make up for shortfalls from Brazil. The deals were evidently not meant to become public knowledge because they were disclosed to the SCMP by traders who asked to remain anonymous.

The war in Ukraine threatens to disrupt major exports of corn, barley, and sunflower oil to China and possibly agricultural shipments from Russia as well. Ukraine’s corn planting season is due to begin next month.

Meanwhile, bad weather in Brazil has delayed the soybean harvest, raising prices above what American suppliers from the Pacific Northwest charge.

“Food security is a critical priority for Beijing as the nation’s imports of corn, soybeans and wheat have soared to record levels, increasing its vulnerability to trade tensions and supply shocks. Top officials have issued orders to ensure commodity supplies, sparked by concerns over Black Sea trade disruptions,” the SCMP reported.

CNBC on Wednesday quoted analysts who said China’s efforts to improve food security by reducing its reliance on imports have blunted the impact of the Ukraine war on domestic food prices.

China currently only fills about 9.4 percent of its immense demand for corn from foreign sources. An increasing share of those imports came from Ukraine last year, in part because Chinese buyers were seeking alternatives to American corn and grain. 

A University of Illinois study published in February found Ukraine providing “60 to almost 90 percent of Chinese imports.” China surpassed the European Union as Ukraine’s biggest corn customer in 2020.

Moody’s economist Steven Cochrane noted Indonesia and India “have the highest exposure to imports from Ukraine, followed closely by China,” but all three countries have large enough economies to blunt the impact of inflation from disruptions in Ukrainian exports.

Globally, corn and wheat futures are reaching ten-year highs as concerns about Ukraine’s upcoming corn planting season grow.

Soybeans are a much larger import crop for China. About 84 percent of China’s soybeans are imported, with Brazil and the United States as top suppliers. Analysts believe demand for soybeans could surge if Ukraine’s output of sunflower oil diminishes, prompting customers to seek alternative vegetable oils.

On the import side, Ukraine and Russia are both major buyers of fruit and vegetables from Turkey, which abruptly finds itself with a surplus of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and zucchini as the war cuts off exports and brings prices crashing down by almost 50 percent. Only a burst of cold weather halted the decline in prices, but Turkish produce dealers expect the reprieve to be temporary as the weather warms again.

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