By Peter McMeekin
Unprecedented rainfall and extensive flooding hit many parts of Central China’s Henan Province in late July sparking fears over the potential effect on the nation’s food supplies. The province is pivotal to China’s food security, accounting for more than ten per cent of total grain production.
The torrential rains stemmed from the remnants of Typhoon In-Fa, which has officially become the second-wettest tropical cyclone ever recorded in China. The provincial capital Zhengzhou received the equivalent of a year's average rainfall in just three days. On July 20 alone, the city received 552.5 millimetres of rain. Over the 48 hours of July 20 and 21, two towns in the province recorded rainfall totals in excess of 750 millimetres and registrations for the week ending July 25 exceeded 1000 millimetres in a number of locations.
Despite being downgraded, the tropical disturbance continued to bring heavy rain to parts of the North China Plain and Northeast China last week. The outlook for the seven days commencing August 5 is far more favourable for the Yellow River Basin, North China Plain and north-eastern provinces. Less rainfall and more sunshine is expected, allowing the floodwaters to recede and crops to recover.
Located in Central China’s Yellow River Valley, Henan is widely recognised as the place where Chinese civilisation originated. It has an area of 167,000 square kilometres, approximately three quarters the size of Victoria. Official reports last week put the area affected by the latest floods at around 1 million hectares, or 10,000 square kilometres.
According to Chinese data, grain output from Henan Province in 2020 was 68.26 million metric tonne (MMT), making it the second most productive province in China. Henan grows as much as 30 per cent of the nation’s wheat output, around ten per cent of both corn and barley production, five per cent of the total soybean crop and three per cent of China’s canola supply.
Most of China’s wheat, barley and canola harvest occurs in the summer months. As of July 24, only around 160,000 hectares remained unharvested in Henan, according to official government reports. Total wheat production across the nation rose two per cent, or 2.6MMT, year-on-year to 134.34MMT, the National Bureau of Statistics reported online in late July, following a survey of 25 major harvesting regions.
Even though the summer grain harvest was largely completed before the floods hit last month, the disaster may still cause severe damage to the storage, transportation and processing of the harvested grains. There are reports of silo facilities being inundated and floodwaters hindering access to move stored grain. Likewise, some processors have suffered damage to milling equipment which will have to be replaced before production can resume.
The quality of the crop that is in the bin is also a significant concern. Controlling the risk of mycotoxin contamination in freshly harvested wheat under the hot and humid conditions currently being experienced will be challenging. Only time will tell how that one plays out, but the official channels are certainly playing down the risk in an attempt to dispel global trade rumours.
While the summer grain harvest has finished, autumn grains production, in particular corn, is ramping up in Henan. Localised flooding has been exacerbated by upstream dam discharge, meaning the water over crops in some low-lying areas is relatively deep and has been quite prolonged. If the stagnant water cannot be drained away quickly, yield reduction will occur, and crop abandonment could result.
However, Henan Province is dominated by plains, particularly in the central and eastern parts, where corn is grown in large quantities. The water levels are expected to recede quickly, minimising the impact on total corn production as long as the heavy rains don’t return. The corn crop in most areas is still in the first third of its growth cycle and has not yet reached the critical pollination window where heavy rainfall can be highly detrimental to yield.
Whatever the true impact of Typhoon In-Fa on the grain production situation in Henan, the government’s spin doctors are in overdrive, assuring its population that their food supply is secure and assuaging the world at large regarding grain production in the Middle Kingdom this year.
Government officials said last week that the floods had not had an appreciable impact on crop production, but they have killed around 250,000 pigs and 6.4 million chickens. National corn production was pegged at 273.5MMT, with the 2021 calendar year imports at 28MMT, falling to 20MMT next year. The fall in imports was attributed to the government's campaign to increase the substitution of wheat and rice into the domestic stockfeed ration.
The impact of heavy rain and floods on the country’s grain supply and prices was limited and short-term, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs said last Friday. Beijing has laid a foundation to secure another bumper grain harvest this year despite major floods in the central province of Henan, and China as a whole has seen less severe disasters than last year, the spokesperson stated.
According to the provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, less than 0.3 per cent of the autumn crop area will have no harvest due to the flooding in Henan Province. A researcher at the Ministry of Commerce said that China is capable of resolving the effect of the heavy rain on food supply and prices in the domestic grain market.
Similar storylines were rolled out after severe flooding in the Yangtze basin wiped out corn fields in 2020, but China quickly turned into a major importer. The bottom line here is ‘actions speak louder than words’, and no amount of rhetoric will fix supply issues if the impact of the floods is greater than Beijing is admitting. China’s import demand for wheat and corn will undoubtedly tell the true story over the next twelve months.
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