Inadvertently shipped to the U.S. in the 1910s, the pesky Japanese beetles — Latin name Popillia japonica — are known for emerald heads, golden-brown wing covers and an appetite for soybean leaves. A cottage industry of insecticides has sprung up to curb them.
Up until a few months ago, the little green scarabs and other insects with the voracious eating habits were among the bigger variables for those who make a living growing soybeans.
But then came tariffs.
In a truly "Twilight Zone" moment, farmers have found themselves somehow caught in the crossfire of a complex international trade war with the Chinese.
The reason: Many of those shrubby plants you drive past here are actually producing beans bound for Asia, especially China, the largest and most lucrative soybean market on earth. Statewide, exports total $3 billion annually.
President Donald Trump has had a beef with China all along, for reasons that make sense. Certainly American jobs are hampered by unfair labor practices. And our U.S. companies are being hammered by cheap steel and stolen technology. We have taken a beating for too long.
But when the administration slapped tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods to send a message, the Chinese retaliated by putting a 25 percent tariff on U.S. soybeans, among many other goods. Many, many areas of commerce are wrapped up in this, but for Central Illinois, soybeans are overwhelmingly the most important. The leafy legume are the lifeblood of the economy. Instability makes us nervous.
Trump offered $12 billion in emergency relief, and the president found new places in the European Union for American-grown soybeans. The problem is, this a short-term approach.
Soybeans have been on the international trade stage before. President Richard Nixon put an embargo on soybeans in place in response to a shortage. President Jimmy Carter forbid certain grain exports to Russia after the country invaded Afghanistan in 1980.
But the commodity market hates variables, and this tit-for-tat is a roller coaster, just as the harvest season is on the horizon.
Will farmers have to store beans in a sagging market?
Will planting amounts be cut back?
We have no idea what the other side will do next or to what amount.
It is a trade war the farmers didn't need or want.
We're eager to return to the days when some very hungry Japanese beetles were our biggest concern.