From the Wall Street Journal, an analysis of China's huge move into world agricultural markets, focusing on the demand for corn:
China's need for corn—which forms the basis of sweeteners, starch and alcohol as well as feed for livestock—was on stark display in July when the nation ordered 21 million bushels of U.S. corn in one hit, more than the U.S. government thought the country would buy in a year. The purchase surprised the market and came as an intense July heat wave was shrinking the potential size of the Midwest crop. China bought another 2.2 million bushels of U.S. corn early this month. . . .
China's influence on corn demand underlines how its fast-growing economy is reshaping global commerce. The nation, with its growing population of 1.3 billion people, has been a major player in commodities markets in recent years.
China already buys about a quarter of all U.S. soybeans. But its sudden demand for corn caught many off guard. China, which hadn't been a net importer of corn for 15 years until last year, has a vast corn belt of its own and for many years strove to be self-sufficient. And because China is secretive about the levels of commodities it holds in its strategic reserves, the rest of the market can only guess what its supply needs are.
Many attribute the larger-than-expected demand to a growing middle class that is changing its tastes more quickly than anticipated. As the Chinese population becomes wealthier, for example, it is eating more pork. And the Chinese government is pushing its farmers to adopt Western methods of raising their pigs, including feeding them more corn. Citizens are also slurping up juices and other products that include corn-based sweeteners: Coca-Cola Co. said that its volume in China spiked 21% in the second quarter. . . .
The changes have created big shifts throughout the food chain, including U.S. companies and farmers putting in place infrastructure that will enable massive shipments of grains and other products to Asia.
Many U.S. traders and economists believe the recent purchases signal U.S. sales will grow so rapidly that China could become the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. corn within five to 10 years, dethroning Japan, which bought about 610 million bushels of U.S. corn last year. . . .
To be sure, Western executives have been wrong before about China's appetite for foreign corn. A sudden surge of Chinese buying in the mid-1990s sparked talk of a trade boon for U.S. farmers, but it was a blip. While China's middle class is far bigger now, and its gross domestic product grew a blistering 9.5% in the second quarter, economists predict turbulence. Much of China's breakneck growth is fueled by government-led investment, not entrepreneurs, and China's housing market appears to be overheating.
Still, the threat of instability might well work in the favor of U.S. farmers. China's ruling Communist Party worries in particular about food inflation, which could put social stability at risk. In an effort to preserve domestic supplies, the government has already stopped construction of factories that convert Chinese corn into ethanol fuel. . . .
For now, the amount of Chinese business confirmed by Washington is relatively small alongside America's total foreign sales. The U.S. exports about 1.8 billion bushels of corn globally.
While nobody in the West knows for sure how much corn China will want to import and how soon, the possibilities fascinate grain traders. According to Michael Swanson, a Wells Fargo & Co. economist, doubling of per-capita meat consumption in China so that it matches the U.S. level would require the country to use an additional 24 billion bushels of corn, or about twice what the U.S. produces in a year. "There's not enough grain in the world for them to do that," Mr. Swanson says. "But just moving in the direction is staggering to consider."