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U.S. soybean industry hopes to double exports to Pakistan, Bangladesh

As the future of trade with China remains uncertain, America's soybean industry has identified two countries with which it hopes to increase trade -- Pakistan and Bangladesh.

"Five years ago, [these countries] did not import a single soybean," said Jeff Jorgenson, an Iowa soybean farmer and the president-elect of the Iowa Soybean Association.

"And now, five years later, Pakistan imports about 2.5 million metric tons and Bangladesh imports about 1 million metric tons a year."

The sudden spike in demand comes from the nations' nascent -- and quickly growing -- animal agricultural industries.

The countries are slowly gaining political and economic stability, which is making the people wealthier, said Grant Kimberley, the senior director of market development for the Iowa Soybean Association. One of the early things people do in that situation is add more animal foods to their diets.

American soybeans are used mostly to feed livestock and fish.

"We think imports to those two countries could easily double within five to seven years," Kimberley said. "That would be pretty significant. They could enter our top 10 markets."

To propel that growth, the U.S. Soybean Export Council is working with companies in those nations to improve their farm and feeding technologies, Kimberley said. The council, along with members of the Iowa Soybean Association, conducted a trade mission to the region last week.

There, they also discussed launching in-country campaigns touting the benefits of animal protein over that of plants. Such campaigns might be accompanied by tutorials about different ways to prepare chicken and fish.

"We're not just over there shaking hands and meeting people," Kimberley said. "We have people over there helping them grow their market, because that will grow our market, also."

Such growth is desperately needed to begin to fill the gap in demand left by China, Jorgenson said.

Before the trade war began, China was the leading buyer of American beans, importing about 30 percent of all the soy grown in the United States.

When the Trump administration levied billions of dollars in tariffs on Chinese goods in summer 2018, China responded with its own tariffs, many directed at agricultural goods like soybeans.

Its appetite for American soybeans plummeted, along with the price of U.S. soy. And, though the nation has made some sporadic purchases in the 18 months since the trade war began, the market has not recovered.

"What it all boils down to is, we have to find, as best we can, a replacement for China," Jorgenson said. "We have a lot of product that we have to get sold."

It would be impossible, though, to fully replace China, Kimberley said.

In 2017, the year before the trade war began, China imported 36.5 metric tons of American soy, Kimberley said. The following year, their imports shrank to 27 million metric tons. And in 2019, the nation imported only 13.

"But they were still our No. 1 buyer of soybeans, even with that," Grant said. "That's why you just can't replace China."

Farmers and industry leaders are hopeful they won't have to. With the January signing of the phase 1 trade deal, China promised to radically increase its purchases of American agricultural goods.

The deal, however, is carefully worded to say that China will buy U.S. agricultural products "based on commercial considerations." What's more, China has yet to remove the bulk of the retaliatory tariffs in place on American agricultural goods.

Brazil, America's number one soybean competitor, is beginning its annual harvest, which means South American beans are about to flood the market. Those beans will be cheaper than America's soy -- even if the tariff on U.S. beans is removed.