Almost 60 percent of all soybeans traded internationally as of 2012 went to China, which makes it far and away the world’s largest importer of beans.
As China’s appetite for meat, milk, and eggs has soared, so has its use of soybean meal. The biggest uses of soybean meal is for hogs (China raises nearly half of the worlds pigs), poultry (a fast-growing food segment in China) and farm-fed fish (a natural for rapid expansion).
“Four numbers tell the story of the explosive growth of soybean consumption in China. In 1995, China was producing 14 million tonnes of soybeans and it was consuming 14 million tonnes. In 2011, it was still producing 14 million tonnes of soybeans, but it was consuming 70 million tonnes, meaning that 56 million tonnes had to be imported,” wrote Lester Brown for the Inter Press Service News Agency, in pointing out the high import numbers.
Looking from the outside, encouraging grain production other than soybeans was a government decision back in the mid 1990s because grains could go into more preferred foods than soybean meal. Soybean meal was the livestock feed.
“The principal effect of skyrocketing world soybean consumption has been a restructuring of agriculture in the western hemisphere. In the United States there is now more land in soybeans than in wheat. In Brazil, the area in soybeans exceeds that of all grains combined. Argentina’s soybean area is now close to double that of all grains combined, putting the country dangerously close to becoming a soybean monoculture,” Brown wrote in suggesting China’s appetite for soybean meal is a main cause for growers concentrating on soybeans.
He wrote that as of mid-twentieth century there has been a16-fold increase in the global soybean harvest mainly from expanding the acres dedicated to growing the crop. “While the area expanded nearly sevenfold, the yield scarcely doubled,” he points out.
Brown contends curbing the growth in demand for soybeans would be good. The populations of developed nations could cut back on demand for meat and this would help slow the growth in demand for soybeans. Not displacing land from food grains to soybeans for feed is the right scenario in Brown’s opinion. “Against this backdrop, the recent downturn in U.S. meat consumption is welcome news,” he concluded in his analysis article.
It should be noted that Brown is the president of Earth Policy Institute and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity.