Agri View: Foreign Trade

Dan Agri View, General

foreign trade
Everett Griner talks about the essential, but costly, foreign trade in today’s Agri View.

Foreign Trade

From USDA Economic Research Service


Global economic performance and population growth drive demand for food and agricultural products, providing the foundation for agricultural trade and U.S. exports. (For more information, see the Trade chapter PDF icon (16x16) in the USDA Agricultural Projections to 2021.) Agricultural exports have significant linkages to the nonfarm economy, particularly through their effects on employment and off-farm business activity. (For more information, see the articles on Effects of Trade on the U.S. Economy.)

Historically, bulk commodities-wheat, rice, coarse grains, oilseeds, cotton, and tobacco-accounted for most of U.S. agricultural exports. However, in the 1990s, U.S. exports of consumer-oriented products inlucding high-value products (HVP)- such as dairy products,meats, poultry, live animals, oilseed meals, vegetable oils, fruits, vegetables, and beverages-showed steady growth, while exports of bulk commodities tended to fluctuate more widely, particularly in response to global supplies and prices.

As population and incomes rose worldwide in the 1990s, U.S. consumer-oriented agricultural exports inlucding high-value products (HVP) expanded in response to demand for greater diversification of diets.  (For more information, see U.S. exports of bulk and high-value products by fiscal or calendar year.)

In 2012 China  became the leading U.S. agricultural export destination, replacing Canada. Other important destinations for U.S. agricultural exports include the European Union and Asia. The top 10 destinations for U.S. agricultural export has varied little since 1990, but Europe, which was the largest market in prior decades, has declined in importance as China, Canada, Mexico, Asia and the rest the rest of the Americas have risen. (For data on top export destinations, see Top 15 U.S. export destinations by fiscal or calendar year.)

Sources of Growth in U.S. Agricultural Exports

Since 1995, U.S. exports have expanded across bulk and high value product categories, with particularly strong growth among consumer-oriented products commodities. Middle-income countries have become the primary source of growth in U.S. agricultural exports , with U.S. agricultural exports to upper middle-income countries like China and Mexico surpassing those to high-income countries in 2011.

Middle-income countries now account for the largest share of U.S. agricultural exports of both bulk products and semi-processed high-value products (eg., wheat, soybeans, and soybean meal). In the other high-value product categories-raw products and processed products-high-income countries remain the largest U.S. markets, followed by the upper middle-income countries.

See interactive chart for data on the Evolution of U.S. Agricultural Exports since 1995.


Imports’ share of total domestic food consumption was relatively low in the 1970s and 1980s, but that share is rising. Imports of fish and shellfish, many fresh fruits and vegetables, fruit juices, tree nuts, and salad and cooking oils account for particularly large shares of domestic consumption. Many agricultural imports with a large share of domestic consumption are products the United States does not produce in large quantities, such as bananas or coffee.

All U.S. agricultural import groups have continued to grow since 1990. By far the largest U.S. agricultural imports are horticultural products, which since 2002 have accounted for about half of all U.S. agricultural imports. Horticultural products include fruits, vegetables, nuts, wine, malt beverages, and nursery products. Much of these imports come from two leading suppliers, Canada and Mexico. The North American Free Trade Agreement is partly responsible for expansion of this type of trade between Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

Sugar and tropical-product imports have exceeded livestock and livestock product imports since 2005. Most sugar and tropical products-such as coffee, cocoa, and rubber-come from Indonesia, Canada, Brazil, and Mexico. Animals and animal products are next in importance among U.S. agricultural imports. Canada, Mexico, and Oceania are large suppliers of animals and animal products to the United States.

In the last decade, U.S. imports came primarily from Canada, Mexico, the European Union, Australia, Brazil, and China. The top import sources have varied little since 1990, but imports from the European Union are slowing, while imports from Canada, Mexico, and the rest of the Americas are increasing. Imports from China have been rising steadily since 2001. (For data on top import sources, see Top 15 U.S. import sources by fiscal or calendar year).

Sources of Growth in U.S. Agricultural Imports

The value of U.S. agricultural imports has expanded since 2000, with significant growth across bulk and high-value product categories. Processed high-value products like coffee, wine, and malt beverages continue to account for the largest share of U.S. agriculture imports, although raw and semi-processed high-value product imports like rubber and rapeseed oil are also registering strong growth.

High-income countries have historically supplied most U.S. agricultural imports, but with relatively strong growth in imports from upper middle-income countries since 2000, high-income and upper middle-income countries are now equally important suppliers for the U.S. market.  Since 2000, upper middle-income countries have become increasingly important sources of U.S. imports of raw and semi-processed high-value products. High-income countries remain the most important source of U.S imports in the largest agricultural import category of processed high-value products.

foreign trade

Chart data