China is the No. 6 customer for U.S. corn exports, reflecting growing demand both in China’s livestock sector and, more surprisingly, in China’s corn-processing industry.

Interest in Chinese processing dropped after 2007, when the government halted growth in the production of corn-based ethanol. But while corn-based ethanol production is still restricted, corn processing for other uses has grown rapidly.

About one-fourth of China’s corn now goes to industrial processing, and processing use is a bigger factor than livestock demand in narrowing the gap between corn production and domestic consumption, according to a USDA-ERS study.

In 1985, China processed fewer than 80 million bushels (mbu) of corn. Then, in the 1990s, the government began promoting processing as a solution to depressed domestic corn prices and a means of economic development.

In 2000, processing was singled out as a key industry for government support under China’s five-year plans, and by 2001, corn use for processing topped 400 mbu. Industrial use doubled by 2004 and doubled again by 2006, reaching almost 1.6 billion bushels.

“There seems to be an increase in industrial use this year after China’s recovery from the world recession in 2008,” says Fred Gale, lead author of the ERS study. “Industrial uses continue to be robust and growing, and on the livestock side demand has been fairly robust.”

Serving the domestic market in China

While China exports some of its processed corn products, its primary focus is serving the domestic market. That’s reflected in the final products it emphasizes: Cornstarch goes into a wide range of food applications in China. Beverage and industrial alcohol, lysine, citric acid, and monosodium glutamate also account for a significant share of the Chinese industry’s output.

 Fuel ethanol and high fructose corn syrup are relatively minor products in China. As in the U.S., almost a third of all corn ends up as processed feed ingredients (corn gluten feed, corn gluten meal and distillers’ grains), most of which goes to China’s livestock sector.

“There are some reports of exports, mostly to South Korea, but China’s corn prices are up about 20% this year, so some of their feed products have been priced out of the international market,” says Gale.

China’s processing sector could grow by 15% next year, while demand from China’s livestock sector could grow by 3-5%, according to U.S. Grains Council CEO Tom Dorr. That adds up to an opportunity for U.S. corn.

“While the council is projecting higher [Chinese corn production] than last year…conservative estimates of demand growth suggest China will likely need to import,” Dorr says.

Based on a crop tour of China’s top corn-producing provinces, the council currently anticipates Chinese corn purchases could total almost 80 mbu and 2.5-3 million metric tons of distillers dried grains. 

Late November 2010