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 have increased significantly over the past few decades to meet growing international and domestic demand. But the composition and pattern of U.S. agricultural trade have shifted over time, as rising incomes and growing supply capacity of emerging economies reshaped global supply and demand for agricultural and food products (see 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 grew steadily over the last two decades, reaching $140.47 billion in 2017, from $56.2 billion in 1995.

However, the composition of agricultural exports has shifted since 1995, reflecting changes in global supply and demand conditions. Most notably, the share of bulk commodities (wheat, rice, coarse grains, oilseeds, cotton, and tobacco)—which historically accounted for most of U.S. agricultural exports—has declined. Meanwhile, exports of consumer-oriented products including high-value products (HVP)—such as dairy products, meats, fruits and vegetables—showed strong growth driven by population and income growth worldwide, and demand for greater diversification of diets (see chart below).

Destinations for U.S. agricultural exports have also shifted over the past two decades. The elimination of agricultural trade barriers as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) boosted exports to Canada and Mexico—partners with the United States in the agreement (for more information on U.S. trade with Canada and Mexico, see NAFTA, Canada & Mexico). At the same time, rising household incomes and changing trade policies in developing East Asia have driven up exports, especially to China, which tripled its share of U.S. agricultural exports from 3 percent, on average, in 1995-2000 to 16 percent in 2011-17. Meanwhile, there has been a sharp decline in the share going to Europe and high-income East Asia, particularly Japan (for data on U.S. agricultural exports and destinations, see Foreign Agricultural Trade of the United States).  

Share of Exports in U.S. Agricultural Production Remained Steady Since 2008

The share of agricultural production (based on value) sold outside the country indicates the level of dependence of the U.S. agricultural sector on foreign markets, as well as the size of the overall market for U.S. agricultural products. Since 2008, the share of U.S. agricultural production value sold in international markets has remained steady, at approximately 20 percent. ERS estimates that, on average, 23 percent of the output of nonmanufactured products and 21 percent of manufactured products were exported between 2008 and 2016 (see chart below).

The Export Share of Production data set is available here.

In 2016, Agricultural Exports Required 1,097,000 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 2016, each dollar of agricultural exports stimulated another $1.28 in business activity. The $134.7 billion of agricultural exports in calendar year 2016 produced an additional $172.1 billion in economic activity for a total economic output of $306.8 billion. Every $1 billion of U.S. agricultural exports in 2016 required approximately 8,100 American jobs throughout the economy. Agricultural exports, in 2016, required 1,097,000 full-time civilian jobs, which included 764,000 jobs in the nonfarm sector. The agricultural export surplus helped to offset some of the nonagricultural trade deficit (see chart below).

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 two decades, largely driven by growing domestic demand for an array of consumer-oriented products. Between 2000 and 2016, total agricultural imports nearly tripled in value, reaching $114.5 billion, up from $39 billion in 2000.

Consumer-oriented products have dominated U.S. agricultural imports, and have grown faster than total agricultural product imports. Increasing demand for year-round variety in foods has driven imports of horticultural products during the off-season in U.S. production. Horticultural products accounted for over 47 percent of U.S. agricultural imports in 2016. Sugar and tropical products, such as coffee, cocoa, and rubber, accounted for approximately 20 percent of imports. By contrast, imports of bulk products have grown more slowly than total agricultural imports (see chart below).

Of the current largest 20 agricultural suppliers, the fastest growing sources of U.S. consumer-oriented imports since 1995 are Vietnam (cashews, pepper), Peru (fresh fruits), China (fruit and vegetable preparations), Switzerland (carbonated soft drinks), and Mexico (fresh/processed vegetables and fruits, beer, snack foods, beef).

Data on U.S. Imports by Level of Processing are available here.

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. In recent years, the share of imports in overall food and beverage consumption has trended up, going from 11 percent in 2009 to 14.8 percent in 2016. Import shares (based on value) have been higher for manufactured products than for nonmanufactured products due, in part, to higher import unit prices for manufactured products. Manufactured products drove the rise in import share of consumption growth between 2008 and 2012. But, since 2013, nonmanufactured products, such as food grains and horticultural goods, have driven increases in the share of imports in food consumption (see chart below).

The Import Share of Consumption data set is available here.

U.S. Has Maintained a Surplus in Agricultural Trade 

The United States has maintained a surplus in agricultural trade since 1960, which helped counter the persistent deficit in nonagricultural U.S. merchandise trade. In 2017, the U.S. agricultural surplus totaled $17.4 billion, which was down $2.9 billion from 2016. The trade surplus is primarily driven by exports of bulk commodities, which consistently exceeded imports and offset the trade deficit in consumer-oriented products (see chart below)

Data on the U.S. Agricultural Trade and Trade Balance are available here.

Last updated: Thursday, March 05, 2020

For more information contact: Bart Kenner