Empty peanut shells are the latest casualty of China's drought

Any considerable drop of peanut production in China could push up global oilseed prices further. PHOTO: PIXABAY

BEIJING - Peanut farmers in China are left with empty shells as extreme weather wreaks havoc on harvests in the world's most populous nation.

Nutless pods are a consequence of alternating drought and excessive rains during key planting and growth periods.

That is bad news for China, the world's biggest grower, after farmers already shrunk the planting acreage.

The empty shells are one factor that could result in peanut output tumbling as much as 30 per cent this season, according to analysts.

"I've never encountered anything like this in previous years," said Song, a peanut trader in Shandong province, where a delayed harvest has just begun.

The plight of farmers can be seen in a video of peanut fields ravaged by drought that made its rounds on social media.

Posted by "Brother Peanut" in Shandong three months ago, when parts of China were already struggling with inadequate rainfall, it shows a large spread of land that used to be planted with peanuts, now mostly barren and dotted with an abnormally small crop.

Peanuts have become the latest casualty as extreme weather roils Chinese agricultural markets during the crucial harvest period.

Sichuan suffered its worst drought in 60 years as searing temperatures baked central and south-western provinces, while flooding inundated the north-east.

Other crops have seen similar damage across the globe this summer, exacerbating the food inflation that has been gripping the world.

Scorching heat shrivelled the corn crop in the United States, leaving some stalks with no ears at all. Sunflowers are withering in Europe, the land of van Gogh, thanks to a once-in-a-generation drought.

The humble peanut, the fourth-largest oilseed crop in the world, is generally resistant to drought. But the legume needs calcium to grow. If the ground is too severely dry or flooded, it will cause a loss of calcium, making it difficult for the plant's roots to absorb enough. The result: a shell with no nut.

"High temperature and drought, or too much moisture in the soil, can both lead to empty peanuts," said Huatai Futures analyst Jiang Ying, who estimates a 20 per cent to 30 per cent fall in China's overall peanut output this season.

Food security

Any considerable drop in peanut production in China, which produces a third of the global output, could push up global oilseed prices further.

It would also thwart Beijing's drive for self-reliance in oilseeds, part of an overarching food security push, after Covid-19 pandemic and soured relations with major trading partners threatened steady supplies from the overseas market.

Beijing has said it will spare no effort to improve oilseed capacity, aiming to produce more than 19 million tonnes of peanuts by 2025, according to the government's five-year plan.

Now, that goal looks very much up in the air. Even before the bad weather, the stage was set for a poor crop. Low prices of peanuts had pushed many farmers to switch to other crops such as corn and vegetable, seeking better profits and easier work.

Shrinking acreage

Those who decided to stick with peanuts found the land was too dry to seed when drought hit in April and May.

Under the double whammy, the planting acreage of peanuts plunged by more than 30 per cent in some main production areas.

After the crop was finally planted, excessive rains hit some areas in Shandong and the north-east, flooding peanut fields right before harvest.

In Henan, where drought has been the dominating problem, pest disease rose along with the extreme weather, also hurting output, according to Sinolink Futures senior analyst Wang Xiaoyang.

"Farmers will probably hold off selling if the price offer is not high, while traders will scramble to snap up the new harvest," Song said. BLOOMBERG

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.