NAPERVILLE, Illinois, May 13 (Reuters) - Two months ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped using Chinese customs data to estimate China’s soybean imports since supplier data indicated much larger volumes, creating a large gap between U.S. and Chinese soy import outlooks.

That disparity has now spread to corn as USDA and China hold vastly different views of how much corn China will import in the 2024-25 marketing year starting Oct. 1. The eventual reality could have a large impact on U.S. corn exports, which in the case of business to China, have recently been displaced by Brazilian supply.

USDA on Friday pegged 2024-25 Chinese corn imports at 23 million metric tons, unchanged from 2023-24. Earlier that day, China’s agricultural ministry forecast 2024-25 imports at 13 million tons, a five-year low and down from 19.5 million in 2023-24. The outlooks were both agencies’ first cuts at 2024-25.

The difference in the two 2024-25 estimates is not driven by customs data discrepancies, though that could become the case once the marketing year begins. USDA expects China’s domestic grain prices will remain higher than the world market, possibly making foreign corn cheaper than domestic supplies.

China projects its 2024-25 corn crop at a record 297 million tons, up nearly 3% on the year and thus reducing import needs. USDA has the upcoming corn crop at 292 million tons versus 288.84 million in 2023-24, identical to China’s 2023-24 crop peg.


USDA and China’s understanding of realized Chinese corn imports appears to have diverged in late 2023 as both agencies hold identical estimates of 18.7 million tons for the 2022-23 season ended last September. The two agencies’ final figures for the previous several marketing years also match.

But a year ago, the agencies did not see eye-to-eye on 2023-24 potential. USDA’s initial 2023-24 outlook of 23 million tons has not changed, though China’s initial 17.5 million has come up by 2 million.

The 10 million-ton gap in the 2024-25 forecast is huge, equivalent to nearly 400 million bushels or about 18% of total anticipated 2024-25 U.S. corn exports. China recently accounted for as much as 31% of annual U.S. corn exports (2020-21), but just 7% went to China in the first seven months of 2023-24.

USDA sees 2024-25 U.S. corn exports up 2% on the year to 2.2 billion bushels, and the agency has probably allocated some of that to China given the large import target and the modest 4% increase in Brazil’s projected 2024-25 corn crop.

Brazilian corn cargoes first began arriving in Chinese ports in January 2023, and the volume has exploded since then, potentially creating data discrepancies. However, in the case of soybeans, the supplier data variation stemmed from U.S. exports and not the much larger Brazilian ones.

China’s latest corn import figures for the four marketing years through 2023-24 are all higher than China initially estimated. USDA’s latest figures are higher than its initial for 2020-21 and 2022-23, lower for 2021-22 and unchanged for 2023-24.


USDA’s March methodology adjustment puts its latest 2022-23 and 2023-24 Chinese soybean import estimates 7% and 9% above China’s ministry, respectively. But the disparity in the initial 2024-25 outlooks is a whopping 15%, with USDA 14.4 million tons (529 million bushels) higher.

Just as in corn, the full global picture must be examined before drawing conclusions, and an immediate standout is USDA’s massive 2024-25 Brazilian soy harvest of 169 million tons, up 10% on the year.

USDA has already drawn scrutiny in recent months for its relatively high 2023-24 crop targets, but it also has very strong Brazilian soy export estimates to match the lofty crop, creating some offset on the balance sheet.

USDA undoubtedly expects China to be the largest U.S. soybean customer in 2024-25, but China has no new-crop U.S. soybeans, corn or wheat on the books thus far. Karen Braun is a market analyst for Reuters. Views expressed above are her own.

(Writing by Karen Braun Editing by Matthew Lewis)