In fact, China, one of the countries most severely hit by the disease, has already imported record levels of nearly 278 million bushels of U.S. soybeans through the first half of the current marketing year. Nearly three out of every 10 bushels of U.S. soybeans being exported this year are going to China. Total soybean exports to China for the 2001-2002 marketing year amounted to 168 million bushels.

"The United States has been the leading soybean exporter during the first half of the current marketing year, which began in October," said USB International Marketing Chair Criss Davis, a soybean farmer from Shullsburg, Wis. "In fact, we have already exported 915 million bushels of soybeans this year. We're ahead of last year's pace by 4 percent." Last marketing year, the United States exported a record 1.1 billion bushels of soybeans, or about 40 percent of the entire U.S. soybean crop.

Davis also points out that U.S. soybean exports are typically highest between October and March and usually slow down from April through September. However this year U.S. exports to China during the month of April were over 10 million bushels. Most of these exports were shipped from Pacific Northwest ports, demonstrating the importance to Chinese customers of the shorter delivery times available from these ports. According to a checkoff-funded transportation study, shipping U.S. soybeans from the West Coast to Asia saves 10-18 days compared with shipments from the Gulf of Mexico.

China and Southeast Asia, two of the regions most severely affected by the SARS virus, remain large importers of U.S. soybeans and are also considered large growth markets where U.S. soybean farmers have significant market share and can positively influence demand, according to the USB's recently adopted export strategic plan.

"Even though China is currently the largest importer of our soybeans, there are still opportunities to grow this market," said Davis. "Checkoff-funded promotions in China's poultry, swine and aquaculture industries have contributed to rapid growth in demand for U.S. soybeans."

China's animal production and feed industries are extremely large and still growing in size, but they are behind in the technical and management expertise needed to be effective. Soybean checkoff-funded programs, implemented by the American Soybean Association, create added value and customer preference for U.S. soybeans by providing animal production and nutrition assistance to these valuable customers. Through these programs, international marketing staff can be extremely effective at influencing production practices and feed ingredient selection.

The Southeast Asia market, which includes Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia, is the largest soybean meal market for U.S. farmers. Soybean checkoff marketing programs in this region target core buyers in the rapidly growing poultry, swine and aquaculture sectors by differentiating U.S. dehulled soybean meal as the product of choice over competitive sources of supply.

"In addition to building preference and adding value through preferred customer programs, U.S. soybean farmers are also building demand in Southeast Asia by developing ways to incorporate soy into traditional foods, such as noodles, and developing new or underutilized markets for soy products," said Davis.

In the current marketing year, China and Southeast Asia have already imported a combined total of approximately 400 million bushels of U.S. soybeans, compared with 281 million bushels at the same point last year. "That's a 42 percent increase, and proof that U.S. soybean farmers' checkoff investments are having a positive impact on exports," explained Davis.

USB is made up of 61 farmer-directors who oversee the investments of the soybean checkoff on behalf of all U.S. soybean farmers. As stipulated in the Soybean Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act, the USDA has oversight responsibilities for USB and the soybean checkoff.