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Expand chart
Data: Descartes Labs; Map: Harry Stevens/Axios

China has all but stopped buying American soybeans, which — in a circuitous new global legume market — are now going to South America, when they are not being thrown into storage in wait of an end to the trade war.

What's happening: U.S. soybean exports to China are now down 98% in 2018, the result of the escalating U.S.-Chinese tension.

The big picture: With the reduced Chinese demand, the U.S. has begun exporting soybeans to Brazil and Argentina in larger volumes.

  • Those countries, which produce lots of soybeans themselves, have been using the imported soy for domestic products like oil and soymeal. In turn, they export their homegrown soybeans to China, said Farzad Taheripour, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.
  • The shift was captured in an analysis of changing shipping routes, shown above. Descartes Labs, a company that analyzes information from satellite imaging and other sensors around the world, found that grain-carrying ships began cutting a new, direct route from the U.S. to Argentina in recent months.
  • "This is what you see when you institute tariffs that really mess up the system," said Matt Witte, a commodities expert at Descartes. "You do things like ship soybeans to a country that already produces a lot of them."

The uptick in Argentina’s soy imports is relatively modest for now, said Pat Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri.

  • It’s been driven partly by tariffs, but also by a soybean shortage in Argentina due to a bad harvest. If it were not for the shortage, Argentina would have even more soybeans to export to China.
  • The U.S. government expects this dynamic to continue into next year, even though Argentina is likely to harvest more soybeans in 2019, Westhoff said.

The bottom line: This detour hurts the American soybean industry, said Taheripour. "Our farmers will receive a lower price for their products."

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