Visiting a soybean field in China is a bit like visiting Mecca for U.S. farmers. The first domestication of the soybean plant dates back to northeastern China in the eleventh century B.C. The soybean was developed there as a source of high-protein food.

Three Iowa soybean farmers recently had the opportunity to meet farmers in China, and see their soybean crop for themselves.

During an Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) trade mission, the farmers visited northeastern China where most of the soybeans there are grown. Iowa farmers who were part of the trade team included Delbert Christensen, ISA past president, from near Audubon; Randy Van Kooten, ISA president, of Lynnville; and ISA’s Director of Market Development Grant Kimberley, who also farms near Bondurant.

Interestingly, the view from the airplane as it touched down in Harbin, China, wasn’t that different from landing at the Des Moines airport. Large cornfields extend as far as the eye could see, planted right up to the airport grounds.

If soybeans are the crop with such history for China, why is so much corn grown? And why, if China can grow soybeans, is that country the U.S.’s largest soybean customer?

Consider that China purchases roughly 25%of U.S. soybean exports. U.S. soybean exports to China this past marketing year exceeded 844 million bushels – astounding, considering China didn’t import any soybeans before 1996.

“Most of this demand is driven by soybean-meal demand,” says Xiaoping Zhang, deputy director of the American Soybean Association International Marketing in China. “Since 1990, Chinese soybean-meal consumption has increased 3,000%. More Chinese citizens with more money eat more meat, and this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.”

China’s population is not only growing, but becoming more urbanized. Soon, for the first time, half of China’s population will be urban, which impacts both production and demand.

Despite China’s size, its percentage of arable land is relatively small. Given the huge increase in demand, it’s no wonder that it now must rely on imported soybeans to meet demand.

In addition, about 60% of Chinese farmers save their seed, reducing yield capacity, says Zhang. And most multinational corporations hesitate to bring their best technology to China for fear of patent infringement. “While researchers and the government are improving yields, it’s not happening fast enough to meet Chinese demand,” adds Zhang.