The US led the world in agricultural exports in 2021, sending $177 billion worth of agricultural products abroad. The US exports just over 20% of what it produces, far outpacing the amount of exports of the world’s top agricultural producers China and India, whose agricultural goods are focused more on addressing domestic needs.
While farm products don’t tend to make headlines, it’s important to the US economy and the global food supply chain in some key ways.
Agricultural exports supported 1.1 million full-time jobs in the US in 2020, 439,000 of which were in the farm sector. Non-farm agricultural jobs include those in processing and agricultural manufacturing.
Agriculture is one of the few trade sectors in which the US has consistently had a trade surplus, meaning the value of goods exported exceeds the value of goods imported by $6 billion in 2021. This is especially notable in relation to China. While the US had a $308 billion overall trade deficit with China in 2020, the US maintained a $22 billion agricultural trade surplus with China.
The USDA defines a wide range of products as agricultural commodities including meat and dairy products, staple grains such as corn and wheat, fruits and vegetables, and processed foods such as chocolate, juice beverages, beer and pet food. Soybeans, which are generally used as animal feed or processed for their oil, are also a major agricultural commodity. Non-edible goods such as biofuels including ethanol derived from corn or cotton are also considered agricultural commodities.
US farmers export just over 20% of what they produce. The rest goes to feeding Americans, feeding livestock, or is turned into biofuels. And the value of US agricultural exports is increasing. The US exported $177 billion worth of agricultural goods in 2021, outpacing 2020 export totals by 18%, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Soybeans, corn, and beef were the top exports in 2021, and have continued to lead the pack in the first six months of 2022.
The amount that gets sent abroad varies widely depending on the commodity. US-grown nuts and cotton are exported at the highest rates with 79% of walnuts, 76% of cotton, and 67% of almonds produced in the country sent to foreign markets. Soybeans and staple grains such as rice and wheat hover around 50%. Produce, meat, and dairy products are exported at the lowest rates.
From 2008 to 2017, China was one of the top two recipients of US agricultural exports. It’s one of the few areas of trade between the two countries where the US has a trade surplus.
But during former President Donald Trump’s administration, trade disputes between the two nations led to competing tariffs and a resulting decline in US exports from 2018 to 2019, especially of soybeans. China went from being one of the top two recipients of US agricultural exports to fifth and third in those two respective years, falling behind countries such as Canada and Mexico.
The US and China’s strong agricultural trade relationship was restored following the US-China Phase One Economic and Trade Agreement signed in February 2020. The agreement removed some Chinese restrictions on importing beef and poultry products from the US. It also allowed for certain products such as potatoes and nectarines to be imported from the US for the first time. One result of this trade agreement was China regaining its position as the top destination for US agricultural exports.
In 2021, China purchased about $33 billion in agricultural products from the US, about 18% of the US’s agricultural export market. China was the largest purchaser of American soybeans and corn and was one of the top four purchasers of the US’s other exports including beef, tree nuts, and non-alcoholic beverages.
California’s high concentration of agricultural workers, large population, and large arable land area contribute to its position as the largest agricultural producer and exporter state. It exports 28% of its agricultural products, which is higher than the national rate of around 20%. In addition, it is the sole exporter of several commodities including almonds, artichokes, dates, garlic, olives, and grapes, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. In 2019, when US agricultural exports amounted to $141.2 billion, California exports were 15% of this total.
California has earned more from agricultural exports than any other state since 2000. Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska and Texas round out the list of top earners over the past two decades.
While the US does maintain an agricultural trade surplus, imports grew at a faster rate than exports from 2016–2019, causing the trade surplus to narrow. The US primarily imports fruits, vegetables, sugar, and tropical products such as coffee, cocoa, and rubber. Mexico and South America provide the bulk of the fruits and vegetables imported, while Canada is the largest supplier of meat and fish.
The portion of food and beverage products the US imports has steadily increased since the 1990s. In 2016, 12.7% of the money Americans spent on food and beverages went to imported products. This is nearly double the percentage spent on imported food in 1993. This is largely due to consumers’ newfound expectation that they will have access to fresh produce year-round as well as the strengthening of supply chains and global trade routes, according to the USDA.
The disruption of the supply chain is one of the reasons prices for food in the US have risen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Learn more about agriculture and farms in the US.
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