According to China's customs statistics, in 2020 China imported 100.33 million tons of soybean, exceeding the historical level of 95.53 million tons in 2017. It took China only 25 years to increase hundred-fold its imports and take over 60% of global soybean trade. The total arable land area fell to the lowest registered level at 120 million hectares, while its protein feed demand continued exploding, forcing China to allow its long-standing stranglehold on domestic soybean oil and soybean meal supply to be covered by a number of foreign grain giants in order to save its farmlands for cereal production.
Over the years, China’s trade supply has been affected by specific government policies and the agricultural reality in some of its trading countries, especially the Sino-US trade conflict and Covid-19 supply chain issues. To stabilize soybean supply, China has begun exploring new trade partners, including Russia, Ukraine and other African “Belt and Road” countries, well-known for their non-GM soybean plantations. These partners have now become an important part of China’s high-value edible bean market. With the longest history of soybean plantation and the highest diversity of germplasm in the world, China expects to see a difference in the global non-GM soybean market by accelerating crop variety research and by taking advantage of scale advantages and financial tools.
Non-GM Market: Overall Self-Sufficient but Rapidly Growing
China addresses imported soybeans (mostly GM) and homegrown soybeans (All non-GM) differently:
- GM soybeans are imported through state-back dealers and can only be sold to bean crushers. About 97% of the soybean oil and soybean meal produced in China comes from imported GM soybeans.
- Only non-GM soybeans are allowed for direct consumption and for bean products/condiments production. About 80% of homegrown soybeans are for edible purposes.
In recent years, China has taken proactive approach to soybean production, with 5 straight years of area and output growth. Indeed, import dependency has declined from almost 90% years back to less than 85% nowadays, without taking into account the 2020 import record. The total volume of non-GM soybean from Russia, Ukraine, Ethiopia and other non-GM origins nears 1 million tons, accounting for less than 5% of China’s edible bean market.
In 2019 China produced 18.1 million tons of soybean. The industry association Bean Products Committee of China estimates 13.6 of the total was used for food-related sectors, an increase of 8% over the previous year. Around 60% was used for bean products, 25% for other food, and 15% directly consumed (including home-prepared soybean milk). Combining literature of “Dietary Guidelines for Chinese Residents” and MoARA’s soybean plantation program, as well as China’s current bean products sector, the association also forecasted a sustained growth of 1 million tons annually.
Chinese Soybean Demand and Supply Estimates (February 2021)
Estimation for February
Forecast for January
Forecast for February
Planted area（Ha m.）
Yield per hectare(kg/ha)
Production and Trade (tons m.)
Domestic Consumption (tons m.)
Pressing (edible oil and soybean meal)
Dissipation and others
Closing balance (tons m.)
Deficit or surplus
Average price (Yuan/ton)
Imported (CIF plus duties)
Note: Soybean market data is counted from October of the current year to September next year.
Source:Chinese Agriculture Outlook Committee, MoARA
Notable Import Increase and Diversifying Origins
China's swine herd recovery has led to a surge demand for soybean meal and the total percentage of GM soybean from the US, Brazil and Argentina further increased from 94.2% in 2019 to 97.3% in 2020. Imports from the US reported the largest increase owing to the Phase One trade agreement, but trade policies from some relevant partners have proven more volatile.
Argentina has repeatedly elevated export tax since 2019 and the soaring prices have deterred many Chinese buyers. Russia briefly suspended its soybean exports to China in early 2020 and imposed a 30% tax on exports starting from February 1 2021. Due to this, China has become more active in engaging in with more trade partners to ensure the availability.
After beginning importing Ethiopian soybean in 2018, China signed a trade agreement with Tanzania in October 2020. Other African countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Zambia are expected to follow as soybean suppliers, as China acknowledged compatibility with non-GM soybeans from these origins , which is becoming a necessary supplementary to domestic edible bean market.
Volume and Value of China’s Soybean Import Origins
Value in 2019(USD m.)
Volume in 2019
Volume in 2020 (tons m.)
Wretched non-GM soybean trade
Although China is the largest non-GM soybean producer and consumer in the world, homegrown soybean has long had to compete against GM soybean, putting Chinese soybean at an absolute disadvantage in both domestic and overseas markets. As a result, the domestic soybean sector has suffered due to insufficient investment in research, especially in fine varieties.
With Chinese developers showing great hesitance in the priorizing of oil or protein content, it has become harder and harder for old varieties to satisfy quality and productivity requirements, one of the reasons Chinese soybean has now reached a stagnant or shrinking presence in the global non-GM soybean market. South Korea and Japan used to be regular customers of Chinese soybean, but have recently imported less soybean from this source.
Volume and Value of China’s Top 10 Soybean Export Destinations in 2019
Value (0000 USD)
Breakthroughs in non-GM Market
China has decided to play its strength-non-GM market and germplasm resources. From 2016 to 2020, over 2000 soybean genotypes and phenotypes were collected and 247 varieties with high oil content and high protein content were selected. China also accelerated the approval process of crop varieties and the agricultural extension of soybean. One of the high-quality varieties has covered 0.233 million hectares, with a protein and oil content of as high as 40.47% and 20.93%, respectively. China invests 10 million Yuan annually to improve infrastructure in 8 seed production counties. As of now, over 60% of the Chinese soybean seeds are produced in these counties through whole-process mechanized systems.
In the next 5 years, China will continue to increase support and spending to develop more varieties with high quality, high yield, stress-resistant and mechanization-compatible features. A national-level soybean breeding base will be constructed in China’s Heilongjiang province, to enhance the competitiveness of homegrown soybean.
China has been trading homegrown non-GM soybean futures in Dalian Commodity Exchange since 2002, giving growers and processing factories an effective tool to hedge against price risks. An official statement released in October 2020 from MoARA pledged to open the international trade of non-GM soybean futures. A shipment of Russian soybean was first traded in Dalian Commodity Exchange in late 2020. This economic scale and financial instrument would enable China to become the first pricing center of non-GM soybean in the world.