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China, Iowa agriculture exports, and “stinky tofu”

In the Public Interest

October 7, 2011
By Deborah D. Thornton
"If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home."

– James Michener (1907 – 1997) American novelist

James Michener, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, traveled widely, especially in Southeast Asia. Many Iowans traveled to Asia in the summer of 2011 as well. Lt. Governor Reynolds and Secretary of Agriculture Northey spent two weeks in South Korea and China. The Thornton family also spent two weeks touring China, the world’s most populous country, with over 1.3 billion people.

Iowa businesses and agriculture exported over $10.9 billion worth of goods in 2010. Our largest market was Canada at $3.4 billion. China was the fourth largest export country at $599 million, according to the International Trade Administration (ITA). The U.S.-China Business Council reports even more positive numbers, listing exports from Iowa to China at $627 million. Exports to China have grown by 1,293 percent since 2000. Our largest export category is machinery at $2.9 billion, followed by processed foods ($2.5 billion), and agriculture/crop products ($976 million). Over 2,600 companies in Iowa export their goods and services; over 80 percent have fewer than 500 employees. Overall the Chinese are the top international purchasers of American agricultural products, importing a total of $17.5 billion.

What are the Chinese buying? Soybeans. They purchase 58 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States. These soybeans are used both for animal feed and consumer consumption. Currently, Iowa farmers produce 30 percent of U.S. soybeans. As a trend, soybean demand in China is expected to increase from 50 to over 88 metric tons by 2020.

There is significant growth in the upper and middle classes in China and a corresponding increase in meat consumption. For example, in 2006, urban residents consumed over 18 pounds of poultry, up from 7.5 pounds in 1990. The Chinese consume more pork and poultry than any other nation. As their middle class continues growing, animal-based protein consumption will grow as well. Iowa agriculture markets should continue to benefit.

In response to Michener’s quote, while in China we embraced the people and learned about the religion. We practiced many of the customs. And we accepted the food, including such novelties as stinky tofu, thousand-year-old eggs, duck feet and tongue, chicken feet, cow stomach, jellied pig blood, “mountain” snake, frogs, turtle, sea cucumber, sea urchin, various shellfish, and eel. We tried them all! We also had very good dishes with pork, beef, and chicken, and a wide variety of green vegetables, mushrooms, and fruit.

n case you’re wondering about the “stinky tofu,” you make it by first making brine of shrimp, vegetables, and salt. You let it ferment for months, and then soak a block of tofu in it. It is distinguishable by its pungent odor, and you either love or hate it. One tourist on the Internet said, “I think a better name would be ‘cowpie surprise.’” In his opinion it looks and smells “like something you could find in a cattle field and it tastes just like it smells.”

So what is tofu made of? Soybeans!

Not to contradict a fellow tourist, but stinky tofu doesn’t smell like ‘cowpie surprise,’ it smells like money. Iowa farmers will continue to recognize and accept the smell, if not the taste. Stinky tofu smells pretty good to them.

I wonder if Lt. Governor Reynolds and Agriculture Secretary Northey had any?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better informed citizenry.

Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst at the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant.


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