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Why China needs canola imports

China has been growing rapeseed for millennia and has seen a rapid increase in productivity over the past 50 years. Even so, production can’t meet demand

Brassica rapa plants have contributed to Chinese cuisine for millennia. “The Book of Songs”, an ancient collection of Chinese poetry, includes one 3,000-year-old poem, Gu Feng, which specifically mentions the plant.

In this English translation, Brassica rapa is called “mustard plant.”

Gently blows the east wind,
With cloudy skies and with rain.
Husband and wife should strive to be of the same mind,
And not let angry feelings arise.
When we gather the mustard plant and earth melons,

We do not reject them because of their roots.
While I do nothing contrary to my good name,
I should live with you till our death.

Zhang Xuekun referenced this poem at the first Canola Dialogue in Beijing in November. Zhang is deputy director and professor at the Oil Crops Research Institute in Wuhan, China. The Dialogue, which brought together Chinese and Canadian industry and government leaders, was designed to talk about regulations, demand and opportunities, and to create the relationships necessary to deal with any issues before they become trade barriers. At the Dialogue, Zhang spoke about rapeseed use and production in China.

Through centuries of breeding, B. rapa has given rise to the root vegetable turnip, the leafy vegetable bok choi and seeds high in vegetable oil. Chinese farmers began growing B. rapa for oil in 200 A.D., and started frying food in oil in the 10th century.

“Rapeseed is the most important oilseed crop in China,” Zhang says.

Advancements in agronomy and genetics have improved production considerably over the past five decades or so. Rapeseed production in China increased from just under 400,000 tonnes in 1961 to 15.3 million tonnes in 2016, based on United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics. This rise was driven by a fivefold increase in acres and an almost eightfold increase in yield over that time. Rapeseed harvested acres in China were just under 19 million in 2016, according to FAO stats. Average yields in China are now about the same as Canada’s.

Chinese farms and fields are still mostly very small, which limits opportunity for large-scale mechanization. Rapeseed is often grown in a triple-crop system with two crops of rice and one crop of rapeseed on the same fields each year. Some larger farms have adopted mechanical seeders and 30 per cent of acres are now combined, even though a lot of farms still seed and harvest small fields by hand, Zhang says. Slow-release fertilizer and herbicides are seeing increased use, he says.

Jiang Lixi, a professor and rapeseed genetics researcher at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, spoke during Canola Week in Saskatoon in December. As Jiang described, China’s rapeseed crop is 90 per cent winter varieties with production centred in the Yangtze River Basin. B. napus varieties now account for 83 per cent of acres, with B. rapa at 10 per cent and B. juncea at seven per cent.

Jiang says major genetic improvement started with the shift from B. rapa to B. napus, and introduction of the first commercial hybrids in 1985. Jiang is part of a Chinese initiative to further increase rapeseed yield and oil content through genetics.

Another important factor Jiang adds, was political reform. Over the past 50 years farm structure moved from a communal system to individual family-run operations, which he says helped motivate farmers.

Room for improvement, but challenges

A new high-resolution map from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) calculates global arable land at 1.87 billion hectares. China has 8.8 per cent of that cropland — which is huge — but China also has 18.7 per cent of the world’s population.

What’s more, Zhang says total arable land in China is shrinking and production is not increasing. FAO stats indicate that rapeseed production has flattened over the past five years. United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) statistics on Chinese rapeseed production (which are lower than FAO figures) show a drop over the past three years.

Yet, as Zhang described at the Dialogue, China’s 10-year plan is to see a 10 per cent increase in rapeseed acres and a 25 per cent increase in rapeseed yield to achieve total annual production of 18 million tonnes.

Is this possible? With the three-cropping system for most production areas, the rapeseed season is capped at around 165 days. This will keep China from achieving the high winter-rapeseed yields of Germany and France. Further mechanization is likely, but this is limited when rapeseed is produced in tiny rice-paddy fields, Jiang says.

China also has another national policy to be self-sufficient in wheat, corn and rice — the big cereal staples — which may limit any major shift in acres.

Imports will continue to fill the gap between Chinese supply and demand. Zhang says China has a vegetable oil supply shortage of 20 million tonnes per year. It covers a large percentage of that shortage with soybean imports from Brazil, the U.S. and Argentina, but “canola oil from Canada will supply part of that,” Zhang says.

*Major oilseeds are copra, cottonseed, palm kernel, peanut, rapeseed, soybeans and sunflower seeds. This does not include palm oil. China palm oil imports are around five million tonnes per year.
photo: Source: USDA Foreign Agricultural Service

Building the China-Canada canola relationship

Over the past decade, China has become a large and reliable market for Canadian canola exports. China is the top market for Canadian canola seed, buying just under four million tonnes through the 2016-17 crop year. China also accounted for 26 per cent of Canadian canola oil exports in that period, second to the U.S., and 19 per cent of meal exports, also second to the U.S.

To help maintain and build that trade relationship, 60 industry leaders and government officials got together for the first Canola Dialogue in Beijing in November. As part of the event, the Canola Council of Canada (CCC) and the China Chamber of Commerce of Import and Export of Foodstuffs, Native Produce and Animal By-Products (CFNA) signed a Memorandum of Understanding that includes provisions such as communicating on regulations affecting trade and working together to facilitate industry meetings and exchanges.

“This agreement signals the start of a new relationship with Chinese importers based on co-operation to support mutually beneficial trade,” says CCC president Jim Everson.

China is an amazingly productive country, achieving near self-sufficiency for many foods, coming close to feeding 20 per cent of the world’s population on less than 10 per cent of the world’s land.

But while agronomy and genetic gains will help domestic supply meet part of China’s rising demand for vegetable oils and protein meal, the country will need a large and reliable supply of quality oilseed imports. That spells opportunity for Canada — and inspiration for a new poem.

O Canada. Land of clean air and good soil.
No better source for quality meal and oil…

Zhang Xuekun, deputy director and professor at the Oil Crops Research Institute in Wuhan, China, spoke about Chinese rapeseed production at the Canola Dialogue in Beijing in November. He is with the article’s author, Jay Whetter.
photo: Supplied

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Jay Whetter is communications manager for the Canola Council of Canada.

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