You’re not the only one looking to China to soak up ever-greater amounts of your ag production. Minutes after Farm Futures Executive Editor Mike Wilson texted me from a Beijing-bound plane, setting out on the Farm Progress Ag Tour of China, I sat down for a chat with Thiago Masson of Brazil’s National Agriculture Confederation (CNA), which announced recently it’s setting up a trade office there to do much the same thing: learn more about just what it is those voracious consumers want.
The CNA is an umbrella organization representing agriculture in Brazil. All farmers and ranchers are taxed specifically to fund CNA activities. And it’s not unusual for U.S. agricultural associations to keep representatives on the ground in importing countries. The American Soybean Association, lots of West Coast fruit producers’ associations, and other U.S. ag interests have maintained on-the-ground reps to push U.S. ag products. But a market generalist pushing a category of products (like, say soybeans) rather than a specific company’s product (say, soybeans processed by Amaggi, SA) is something new.
“China is a big blip on the radar,” he said. “China has become the number-one destination for Brazilian agribusiness exports, and we want to enhance those exports. Right now,” he said, “we are concentrating on soybeans. But we want to diversify, and so our goal is to promote the image of Brazilian agribusiness to consumers there.”
Brazilian ag faces some communications challenges, especially in Europe, where the belief Brazilians are knocking down the Rainforest in order to produce ethanol apparently just won’t quite go away. As a result of European activist pressure, the Brazilians have come up with certifications that everything from coffee to sugarcane to soybeans weren’t produced in a way foreign consumers wouldn’t like.
For now, the Brazilian effort in China, Masson says, is limited to intelligence-gathering and building relationships with importers, processors and the like. He said that, while the Brazilians have an eye on a growing Chinese middle class, a group likely to improve diets in the coming years. “Hopefully, next year, we will move to communicating with Chinese consumers.” That strategy, of course, may matter little for soybeans - but could be important for beef and pork.
So the Brazilians want to go beyond the bean. After soybeans, the wish list includes meat (Brazil’s swine and beef herds are huge,) wood and cellulose, and coffee. Somewhere down the line, Masson says, the office may start pushing ethanol.
Back in 2010, the Brazilian government anointed its first eight ag attachés in embassies around the world, including in Beijing. But that effort has not reached the level of the U.S. ag attaché program worldwide, and the CNA is hoping to augment the attachés’ efforts - though the last one’s tour has finished and the next one has yet to arrive in the Chinese capital.
And it may be a wise investment. After all, back in March, nearly two-thirds of all Mato Grosso soybeans went to one place: China. The Brazilians are hoping they can get similar results nationwide in the years to come.
With more than 23% of Brazil’s 2012 ag exports so far going to China - compared to less than 19 percent in 2011, spending a little money on customer service may not be a bad idea. And that’s why Americans and Brazilians in agriculture all seem to be headed East these days.