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US farmers are on the front line of Trump’s trade spat

Despite some apparent de-escalation of Donald Trump’s trade war with China last week, it really hasn’t got started.

Garry white employee

Garry White

in Features


Tariffs on $34bn of Chinese goods will come into force on 6 July and China will retaliate – with Trump-supporting farmers firmly in its firing line. US agricultural products that face trade barriers from China include orange juice, fruit, nuts, wine and farmed salmon – but China’s main target is soybeans.

China buys roughly half of all exports from the US – or roughly one out of every three rows of soybeans that American farmers grow. The value of these exports is around $14bn out of total agricultural exports to China of around $20bn.

Last week’s good news for China came on Wednesday with President Trump deciding to go with a less harsh method to curb Chinese investments in US technology companies than his previous rhetoric had suggested. Instead of a broad-based crackdown, he will instead work with Congress on a more modest measure that involves letting the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States deal with concerns about foreign purchase of sensitive domestic technologies.

Despite trade barriers not officially being erected until next month, US farmers have already started feeling the initial brunt of China’s retaliation. Soybean prices have plunged to a nine-year low as China plans to weaponise the crop against the Trump heartlands. Chinese authorities have promised to slap a 25% tariff on US soybeans should the US administration put up trade barriers against its exports. Processed soybeans are the world's largest source of animal protein feed and the second largest source of vegetable oil. The crop is particularly important in China, as it is the largest pig producer in the world and pork remains a staple food across the country. 

Of the top ten soybean producing states in 2017, eight of them produced a majority for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.  Only Illinois and Minnesota chose Hillary Clinton over the controversial Republican. Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, North Dakota and Kansas all plumped for Trump. Farmers in the region are already being impacted as shipments have stopped even before tariffs have been introduced. The US is also expecting a bumper crop this year, which is a further negative for prices.

Trump-supporting soybean farmers in Minnesota have been talking about the value of their farms losing in the order of $200,000 apiece. “When a tariff even gets talked about, it makes both the buyers and the sellers jumpy,” soybean farmer Dale Stevermer told CNN. “It's going to impact my bottom line, it's going to impact my business livelihood, and, to an extent, it becomes a mental outlook.”

Citigroup has calculated that a 25% import tax on US soybeans would completely price Midwestern farmers out of the China export market based on recent prices. Crops in Argentina are currently being hit by a drought, so the country is unable to capitalise on the extra demand from China as it switches the source of its supplies, so the biggest beneficiary looks likely to be Brazil. There are also other suppliers in Asia that can help fill the shortfall.  

On Tuesday, Beijing decided to remove tariffs on soybeans imported from India, South Korea, Bangladesh, Laos and Sri Lanka that were previously set at 3pc. Soybean meal, which had been subject to 5pc tariffs, will also be exempted. These cuts were agreed before the current trade escalation and are part of the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement signed by its members in 2016, but the timing of their introduction is likely to be tied in with current machinations. However, it is important to note these countries have not been exporting soybeans to China at all for the last year so how much of the shortfall they can make up remains moot. 

There is likely to be some upward pressure on Chinese food prices, which won’t play well domestically, but authorities appear comfortable with the impact right now. China’s National Development and Reform Commission, its old State Planning Commission, said last week that consumer prices were likely to be stable in the second half of the year, with grain and edible oil stocks relatively high.

It’s not just farmers in the Midwest that look set to be collateral damage in the trade war – there will be a significant slowdown in the whole logistic supply chain. Louisiana, a state which was solidly behind Trump in the 2016 election, will also be hit. The Port of South Louisiana handles the most tonnage of any US port – and fewer exports of soybeans and lower imports of products such as steel and aluminium will hit trade here. A full trade war will cut economic output by a minimum of 7pc over five years, the largest impact on any state, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. It also noted that one in six jobs in the state were linked to international commerce, so a protracted spat could help send the US unemployment rate in the wrong direction.

But, hopefully, it won’t come to this. With the mid-term elections due to be held in November, President Trump really needs to declare some sort of “win” by mid-September. Any escalation, as threatened, will probably lead to a broad-based market sell off and this is not the ideal backdrop to go into an election that will be seen as a vote on the popularity of the current incumbent of the Oval Office.

A version of this article appeared in Friday’s Daily Telegraph.

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