The executive from one of China's biggest soybean crushers sat on a panel at a Kansas City agricultural exports conference, listening to an expert beside him explain why China would remain dependent on U.S. soybeans to feed its massive hog herds.
When his turn to speak came, Mu Yan Kui told the international audience of soy traders that everything they just heard was wrong. Then Mu ticked off a six-part strategy to slash Chinese consumption and tap alternate supplies with little financial pain.
"Many foreign business people and politicians have underestimated the determination of Chinese people to support the government in a trade war," said Mu, vice chairman of Yihai Kerry, owned by Singapore-based Wilmar International.
The comments echo a growing confidence within China's soybean industry and government that the world's largest pork-producing nation can wean itself off U.S. soy exports – a prospect that would decimate U.S. farmers, upend a 36-year-old trading relationship worth $12.7 billion last year, and radically remap global trade flows.
Just one prong of the strategy Mu detailed — to slash soymeal content in pig feed — could obliterate Chinese demand for U.S. soybeans if broadly adopted, according to Reuters calculations.
Cutting the soy ration for hogs from the typical 20 percent to 12 percent would equate to a demand reduction of up to 27 million tonnes of soybeans per year – an amount equal to 82 percent of Chinese soy imports from the United States last year. Chinese farmers could cut soymeal rations by nearly half without harming hogs' growth, experts and academics said.
Soy meal provides the protein and amino acids that pigs need to thrive, but reducing their use will be easier in China than elsewhere because farmers here have long included more soy than needed to keep their hogs healthy, according to industry experts in China and the United States.
The standard 20 percent ration dates to a recipe promoted by U.S. soybean industry advocates in the 1980s as they entered what was then a newly opened market for foreign investment.
Most Chinese pig farmers have continued to use high levels of soymeal even as their U.S. counterparts reduced soy content after advancing the science of optimizing feed ingredients to provide the best nutrition at the lowest cost.
Major Chinese agriculture firms have recently started adopting the same tactics, but the nation's pork sector remains dominated by smaller operations that — until now — didn't have a strong financial incentive to justify the time and expense required to overhaul feeding systems and formulas, industry experts said.
Now, China's 25-percent tariff on U.S. soybeans — a retaliation against levies by U.S. President Donald Trump on a wide range of Chinese imports — is accelerating the push to slash soymeal rations.
"The Sino-U.S. trade tensions will inevitably promote the wider application of this know-how," said Yin Jingdong, professor in animal nutrition at China Agricultural University.
A feed mill owned by Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Co, for instance, plans to eliminate imported U.S. soybeans from its feed mix by October, said Zhang Wei, a manager at the mill, one of China's top farmers and feed makers. The firm will replace soy imports with more cornmeal and alternative protein sources, including domestically produced soymeal, which has typically been grown for human consumption.
At the Kansas City conference, held by the U.S. Soybean Export Council, Mu highlighted reduced soymeal rations as part of a broader strategy, including seeking alternative protein sources such as rapeseed or cotton seed; tapping surplus soybean stocks, including a government reserve, and domestically grown soybeans; and continuing to boost soybean imports from Brazil and Argentina.