In the last two or three years, China has replaced the U.S. as the leading beef importer in the world. Chinese beef imports in 2018 exceeded total U.S. beef imports. If Hong Kong is included along with mainland China, total China/Hong Kong imports were larger than U.S. beef imports beginning in 2017.

Total world beef imports have increased by 17.7 percent in the five years from 2015 to projected 2019 totals. Over that same period, beef imports in China increased 153.4 percent along with a 62.2 percent increase in beef imports into Hong Kong leading to a 122.6 percent increase in beef imports in the China/Hong Kong region. By contrast total beef imports into the U.S. decreased by an estimated 12.3 percent over the 2015-2019 period. Increased beef imports into China alone accounted for over 75 percent of the net increase in total world imports in this five-year period.

In 2015, China accounted for 8.7 percent of world beef imports, and including Hong Kong brought the 2015 share to 13.1 percent. Total U.S. beef imports in 2015 accounted for 20 percent of global beef imports. Projections for 2019 show China importing 18.7 percent of global beef imports and along with another 6.1 percent of imports into Hong Kong means that the China/Hong Kong region currently accounts for a 24.8 percent share of world beef imports. U.S. beef imports are projected to account for 14.9 percent of world beef imports in 2019.

The rapid growth in Chinese beef imports has dramatically altered global beef flows with several countries now exporting a significant share of total exports to China. China receives the majority of beef imports from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand. No. 1 beef exporter Brazil currently ships about 22 percent of total exports to China and accounts for 31 percent of total Chinese beef imports. Brazil sends another 17 percent of beef exports to Hong Kong. Uruguay is currently the eighth largest beef exporting country but sends about 70 percent of exports to China and accounts for 21 percent of Chinese beef imports. Argentina, currently the sixth largest beef exporting country sends about 65 percent of total beef exports to the China/Hong Kong region.  Argentina accounts for 17 percent of Chinese beef imports. No. 2 exporter Australia ships 16 percent of total beef exports to China and accounts for 17 percent of beef imports into China. New Zealand, the No. 5 beef exporter, sends 26 percent of total exports to China and accounts for 11 percent of total beef imports into China.

Notably absent from the sources of Chinese beef imports are North American beef exporters. About 2 percent of Canadian beef exports move to China while China accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. and Mexican beef exports. Hong Kong is an important export market for Canada (6 percent of exports); the U.S. (10 percent) and Mexico (4 percent).

Numerous factors account for the lack of U.S. market share in China. Despite receiving access to the Chinese market in 2017, U.S. beef exports have shown almost no growth. This is partly due to the need to develop markets in China for higher quality/more expensive U.S. beef. Destined to be a lengthy endeavor, this process has been completely interrupted by the trade war and the additional tariffs currently in place in China for U.S. beef. Restrictions on production technology allowed in beef exported to China (implants, beta agonists, etc.) mean that the supply of U.S. beef available for the Chinese market is limited. The U.S. is currently caught in a chicken-and-egg situation of not having much supply for the Chinese market and not having enough market potential to warrant increased production to meet Chinese demand. Nevertheless, it is important for the U.S. to participate in the growing Chinese beef market. At current levels, if the U.S. could achieve a 10 percent market share of Chinese beef imports, it would add over 11 percent to total U.S. beef exports.

(Derrell S. Peel is a livestock marketing specialist at Oklahoma State University.)

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