The USDA announced Friday that China is making a significant purchase of U.S. corn after years of deteriorating trade, spurring hope that the trade talks between the two countries are producing real progress that could have lasting effects.

The USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service announced Friday morning an export sale of 300,000 metric tons of U.S. corn to China and U.S. Grains Council President and CEO Tom Sleight says he hopes it’s a sign that the two countries are working out their biotech regulatory concerns.

“This is very encouraging — that the negotiations have been going well and getting after some of the key issues that have been blocking trade with the U.S. and China on corn,” Sleight told Agri-Pulse in an interview.

China’s corn imports from the U.S. have been rapidly falling since 2012, when they reached almost 4.5 million metric tons, according to USDA data. China purchased only about 290,000 tons in all of 2018, roughly the same quantity that was announced Friday. A major turning point for U.S. corn trade came in 2013, when China claimed it found traces of a biotech corn trait that it had not approved (although it had been approved in the U.S. and elsewhere). In the following two years China rejected about 2 million tons of U.S. corn shipments.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told lawmakers last month he has made it a priority to convince China to reform its biotech approval process to make it speedier and more transparent. Shortly afterward, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization called China's regulatory framework for agriculture “broken, and American farmers have endured Beijing’s unjustified restrictions for far too long.”

Many seed companies will not release their products in the U.S. before completing the lengthy and uncertain Chinese approval process out of fear that some of the commodities could inadvertently wind up in China.

Sleight said confidence between buyers and sellers will be key to the future of corn trade with China.

“The corn purchase by China announced today in USDA’s export sales report is very welcome news for U.S. agriculture, and we see it as a positive sign for the U.S.-China relationship as intense negotiations continue,” USGC said in a statement on Friday. “The outcome of these talks is crucial to U.S. grains and ethanol, and we appreciate continued engagement by our negotiators and their counterparts in China.”

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