A Fine Crop of Data: The China-U.S. Trade War and Soybeans

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In March 2018, the United States began implementing tariffs against Chinese imports of steel and aluminum in response to alleged unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft by the Chinese state. In response, China in April and June of 2018 announced tariffs on American products including a 25 percent tariff on soybeans, a key U.S. export to China. This lead Bloomberg to predict that America’s Midwest farmers, a key demographic in Trump’s approaching 2020 election campaign, would suffer as the cost of importing soybeans to the U.S. increases.

On April 4, China announced a further escalation on the U.S.-China trade war including more tariffs on U.S. grown soybeans. It remains to be seen how these new tariffs will affect U.S. soybean farmers, but with the dataset for the number of soybean acres planted in 2018 just updated, it is possible to examine how the U.S.-China trade war has affected U.S. farmers in 2018.

Source: National Agricultural Statistical Service (Department of Agriculture). (2019). USDA Crop Acreage Data: Acres planted: soybean fields (county) [dataset]. Washington, DC: SAGE Stats by SAGE Publishing. Available from http://data.sagepub.com/sagestats/5301.

The graph shows a small decrease in the number of soybean acres planted in the U.S. by over one million acres between 2017 and 2018. However, there was a large increase of over seven million acres in soybeans from 2016 to 2017.

That’s data at the U.S. national level – what about those Midwestern states that Bloomberg predicted would be hit hardest by the Chinese tariffs? How can we see the Midwest follows this same national trend? If we isolate and aggregate the data for the 12 Midwestern states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin) we get the following graph.

Source: National Agricultural Statistical Service (Department of Agriculture). (2019). USDA Crop Acreage Data: Acres planted: soybean fields (county) [dataset]. Washington, DC: SAGE Stats by SAGE Publishing. Available from http://data.sagepub.com/sagestats/5301.

Very similar to the national trend chart, no? Again, we see a decline in the number of acres of soybeans being planted in the Midwest, but not as dramatic a decline as was suggested in the news coverage of this topic. The number of acres planted in the Midwest declines from 72 million in 2017 to 71 million in 2018, but still high far above the 2016 figure of 66 million acres of soybeans planted. This suggests that it’s too early to definitively say the slight decline is due to the Chinese tariff on soybeans and not another factor. Additionally, more data such as the number of U.S. soybeans being sold to China and the profits of U.S. soybean farms are needed in order to further investigate the effect of Chinese tariffs.

When presenting this research we might present the data as shown below in order to best show and understand the relationship between the total number of acres planted in the U.S. as compared to the Midwest.

Source: National Agricultural Statistical Service (Department of Agriculture). (2019). USDA Crop Acreage Data: Acres planted: soybean fields (county) [dataset]. Washington, DC: SAGE Stats by SAGE Publishing. Available from http://data.sagepub.com/sagestats/5301.

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