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Farmers cutting sorghum in New Mexico. Photo: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

A look at the trials and tribulations of one U.S. agricultural product, sorghum, tells the story of how the U.S. reached the brink of a trade war with China — then swiftly retreated.

The big picture: Sorghum growers and exporters were caught in the middle of a U.S. and Chinese trade policy fight so volatile that it stranded sorghum-laden American ships before they reached their destinations in China.

The backdrop: Sorghum, a grain, is used to feed pigs and make a popular liquor in China. Beijing spent about $1.3 billion on sorghum in 2016, and $1.2 billion worth came from the U.S., according MIT's Observatory of Economic Complexity.

  • In February, Beijing launched an anti-dumping investigation into American sorghum, looking into whether the U.S. was selling the crop to China at unfairly low prices. Later that month, Trump announced the first round of steel and aluminum tariffs, kicking off a potential trade war.
  • Amid the trade fight, Chinese imports of sorghum spiked in April. China bought 640,000 tons of the crop, an 87% increase from April 2017, according to Reuters.
  • Then, China declared that it would place an extra 179% tariff on U.S. sorghum imports on April 17. That news prompted an American ship carrying sorghum, bound for Shanghai, to make a U-turn in the Indian Ocean and head for Cartagena, Spain, reports Bloomberg.
  • It was one of several ships that had to abruptly change course after China announced the anti-dumping duty.
  • But on May 17, President Xi Jinping's top economic adviser, Liu He, announced that Beijing would drop its probe of U.S. sorghum — a sign of easing trade tensions.
  • That ship heading to Cartagena? It "began sailing back toward the Atlantic. It’s currently bound for Singapore," per Bloomberg.

The bottom line: Although China has dropped its investigation, "the damage to shipments [is] already done and trade flows have been disrupted," per Reuters.

Go deeper: Soybeans are another unlikely ground zero in Trump's trade war.

Go deeper

Updated 8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.