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Deregulation sparks rise in grain container trade

Deregulation of grain trading in Australia has led to an explosion in shipments in containers rather than bulk — a trend that may be repeated in Canada, although on a less spectacular scale, industry sources said on Tuesday.

Australia, where grain markets were deregulated in 2008, now ships around two million to 2.5 million tonnes of wheat a year in containers, up from about 200,000 to 300,000 tonnes when the market was controlled by the Australian Wheat Board.

“A lot of it is done by smaller, regionally-based, container packers who hopped on a plane and ferreted out new markets,” Geoff Honey, CEO of Grain Trade Australia, told Reuters.

“For instance there are Vietnamese flour millers who can’t handle bulk (shipments) but they can handle a few containers,” he said on the sidelines of a conference organized by the International Grains Council.

Containers may individually contain about 20 tonnes of wheat compared with about 40,000 to 50,000 tonnes which may be shipped in a bulk cargo.

Honey said most of the container shipments were going to southeast Asian customers including Malaysia and Indonesia while trade to China had also been significant.

“About 400,000 tonnes of sorghum has gone to China in the last six months from southern Queensland and New South Wales for liquor production,” Honey said.

The rising popularity of a liquor in China known as Baijiu, which is made from sorghum, has led to increased shipments of the grain from Australia to China.

“Level of increase”

Canada has recently followed in Australia’s footsteps and deregulated grain exports and a rise in container traffic is anticipated, albeit less dramatic.

“We probably will see some level of increase in container traffic… That is the beauty of having many players looking at how they can take a product and market it,” said Ian White, CEO with CWB, formerly the Canadian Wheat Board.

White said, however, the key market for containers in southeast Asia was harder to reach for North American suppliers.

Financing has also played a role in the growth of the trade.

“Customers in Asia are using containers because of the financing scenario,” one industry source said, explaining that buyers preferred to minimise the stocks they carried due to the difficult credit environment.

“Sending in bits and pieces allows them to manage inventory via a steady flow,” the source said. “The downside is administration as it multiplies the paperwork which is a pain for traders.”

— Nigel Hunt and Sarah McFarlane report for Reuters from London, England.

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