U.S. Agricultural Trade at a Glance

The United States is the world’s second largest agricultural trader, after the European Union. Both U.S. agricultural exports and imports increased significantly over the last quarter century, due to the economic ascension of many emerging economies, as well as the implementation of policies (both foreign and domestic) that have expanded U.S. access to foreign markets. Over the same period, the geographic and product composition of U.S. agricultural trade has shifted, as rising incomes and growing supply capacity of emerging economies have reshaped global supply and demand for agricultural and food products (see publication below).

The Global Landscape of Agricultural Trade, 1995-2014

Composition and Destinations of U.S. Agricultural Exports Have Shifted

With U.S. agricultural output growing faster than domestic demand for many products, U.S. farmers and agricultural firms have been relying on export markets to sustain prices and revenues. As a result, U.S. agricultural exports have grown steadily over the past quarter century—reaching $177 billion in 2021, up from $66.5 billion in 1996.

However, the product composition of agricultural exports shifted at roughly the same time, reflecting changes in global supply and demand. Most notably, exports of consumer-oriented products—including high-value products (HVP) such as dairy products, meats, fruit, and vegetables—showed strong growth driven by increasing population and income worldwide, as well as a growing diversification of diets (see figure 1).

Destinations for U.S. agricultural exports have also shifted over the last 25 years. The elimination of agricultural trade barriers, as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—superseded by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) in July 2020—nearly quadrupled exports (by value) to Canada and Mexico (for more information on U.S. trade with Canada and Mexico, see USMCA). Coinciding with policy developments, rising household incomes and changing trade policies in developing East and Southeast Asia have driven export growth—especially for China, whose share of U.S. agricultural exports more than quadrupled, from 3 percent during 1996–2002 to 15 percent during 2010–21. Meanwhile, there has been a decline in the export share going to Europe and high-income East Asia, particularly Japan (for data on U.S. agricultural destinations, see Foreign Agricultural Trade of the United States.).

Share of Exports in U.S. Agricultural and Food Production Has Remained Steady Since 2010

The share of U.S. agricultural and food production sold outside the country indicates the level of these sectors’ dependence on foreign markets, as well as the size of the overall market for U.S. agricultural products. Since 2010, the share of U.S. agricultural and food production (in terms of value) sold in international markets has remained steady at approximately 20 percent. Among the many products that make up U.S. agricultural trade, the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that (on average) 23 percent of the output of nonmanufactured agricultural products and 22 percent of manufactured agricultural products were exported between 2010 and 2020 (see figure 5).

 

In 2020, Agricultural Exports Supported More Than 1 Million Full-time Civilian Jobs

U.S. agricultural exports support output, employment, income, and purchasing power in both the farm and nonfarm sectors. ERS estimates that (in 2020) each dollar of agricultural exports stimulated another $1.03 in business activity. The $150.1 billion of agricultural exports in calendar year 2020 produced an additional $154.3 billion in economic activity, for a total economic output of $304.4 billion. Every $1 billion of U.S. agricultural exports in 2020 supported approximately 7,550 U.S. jobs throughout the economy. Agricultural exports in 2020 required 1,133,000 full-time civilian jobs, which included 694,000 jobs in the nonfarm sector (see figure 6).

The Agricultural Trade Multipliers data are available here.

U.S. Agricultural Imports Expanded Steadily, Mostly Driven by Consumer-oriented Products

U.S. agricultural imports also expanded steadily over the past quarter century, largely driven by growing domestic demand for an array of consumer-oriented products. Between 1996 and 2021, total agricultural imports more than quadrupled in value, reaching $171 billion in 2021.

Consumer-oriented products have dominated U.S. agricultural imports and have grown faster than total agricultural product imports, increasing on average by nearly 7 percent annually since 1996. Increasing demand for year-round variety in foods has driven imports of horticultural products during the offseason in U.S. production. Horticultural products (including fruits, nuts, vegetables and beverages) accounted for more than half of U.S. agricultural imports in 2021. Sugar and tropical products (such as coffee, cocoa, and spices) accounted for approximately 15 percent of imports (see figure 7).

For data on U.S. imports by level of processing, see the U.S. Agricultural Trade Update.

Share of Imports in Consumption Has Increased in Recent Years

As the U.S. population has grown in size and diversity, the volume and variety of food consumed domestically have also increased (driving up imports of a range of agricultural products). Over the past decade, the share of imports in overall food and beverage consumption has trended upward, from 13.1 percent in 2010 to 18.3 percent in 2020. Import shares (based on value) have been higher for manufactured products than for nonmanufactured products, due in part to higher unit prices for manufactured imports. Manufactured products drove the rise in import share of consumption growth between 2008 and 2012. Since 2013 nonmanufactured products (such as food grains and horticultural goods) have driven increases in the share of imports in food consumption (see figure 9).

For the data set, see Import Share of Consumption (2008-2020).