China Overtakes U.S. as Largest Crop Importer, WTO Data Show

China passed the U.S. last year for the first time to become the biggest importer of agricultural products and also increased its exports, according to data by the World Trade Organization.

Imports, including food and beverages, rose 34 percent to $144.7 billion in 2011 from $108.3 billion in 2010, according to Bloomberg calculations based on data released by the Geneva-based trade body. Exports gained 25 percent to $64.6 billion, beating Canada to become the sixth largest, the data show.

Growth in the second-biggest economy and largest population has boosted demand from soybeans and corn to feed livestock to powdered milk and sugar to make beverages. Urbanization widened China’s water and land shortages, further fueling a global rally in crops amplified by drought-reduced supply.

“Whether it’s rice, wheat or soybeans, China’s needs are huge and they are only going to get bigger, because it can’t produce enough while urbanization is still progressing,” said Li Qiang, the Shanghai-based chairman of commodity researcher Shanghai JC Intelligence Co. The country generally favors importing unprocessed crops to raise animals rather than processed products, he said.

The U.S. has long been a net exporter of crops, while China’s shipments, while growing, are smaller than its imports, Li said. China’s had a net-import bill last year of $80.1 billion, while the U.S. recorded $31 billion in net exports, according to Bloomberg calculations based on WTO data.

China will more than double soybean imports since 2005 to 58 million tons in the marketing year ending Sept. 30, taking about 60 percent of total global trade, according to data by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last year, imports of rice jumped 58 percent from 2010 while sugar purchases gained 65 percent, according to China customs data.

Soybeans on the Chicago Board of Trade have gained 38 percent this year while corn has advanced 16 percent amid the worst drought affecting the Midwest since 1936. Soybeans reached a record $17.89 a bushel on Sept. 4, while corn touched an all-time high of $8.49 on Aug. 10.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE