Last year, Brazilian farmer Gustavo Lopes sized up his sugarcane plantation against his soybean fields.
He looked at global trends, including rising U.S.-China trade tensions and a stubborn sugar-market glut. Then he tore up the last of his cane fields and ditched a decades-old supply contract with a local sugar mill.
Lopes planted soybeans across his 1,600-hectare farm in Sao Paulo state – a bet that paid off earlier this month when Chinese buyers loaded up on South American soy after Beijing imposed tariffs on U.S. beans. The farmer got his highest price ever for soybeans.
“It was unusual for this time of year,” Lopes said in an interview at his farm, where he’s prepping to plant another soy crop in September. “It’s got to be a result of Chinese demand.”
Shifting trade flows are redefining the Brazilian landscape, spurring more farmers to align their crops with Chinese appetites. The nation’s soy plantings have expanded by 2 million hectares in two years – an area the size of New Jersey – while land used for cane shrank by nearly 400,000 hectares, according to government data.
China’s growing demand for meat has supercharged soy imports for animal feed. The Asian nation paid $20.3 billion last year for 53.8 million tonnes of soybeans from Brazil, nearly half its output – and up from 22.8 million tonnes in 2012.
A new 25 per cent Chinese tariff on U.S. soybeans – a retaliation for U.S. levies by President Donald Trump – is expected to boost Brazil’s soy exports to an all-time record this year.
Brazilian soybean exports to China rose to nearly 36 million tonnes in the first half of 2018, up 6 per cent from a year ago. In July, they surged 46 per cent from the same month a year earlier to 10.2 million tonnes.
Brazil’s grains boom has it rivaling United States as the world’s top soy producer this year, after outpacing U.S. exports over the past five years.
All that soy is eating into Brazil’s sugarcane belt, which is reeling from sugar prices near multi-year lows. Chinese sugar tariffs have weighed on the global market for the sweetener as developed nations continue to cut back consumption.