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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 high-value products (HVP)-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. HVP exports expanded in response to demand for greater diversification of diets. In fiscal year 1991, HVP exports exceeded exports of bulk products for the first time. Since then, HVP exports have continued to exceed bulk exports, even in years of an overall decline in U.S. agricultural trade.

While grains and feeds are our leading export group, both oilseeds and products and animals and animal products are  the next largest export groups. Growth of U.S. exports to Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, and Asian markets have been an important factor raising HVP exports since 1990. (For more information, see U.S. exports of bulk and high-value products by fiscal Excel icon (16x16) or calendar Excel icon (16x16) year.)

Canada became the leading U.S. agricultural export destination in 2002, replacing Japan. Mexico moved into second position ahead of Japan in 2005. Japan's slow recovery from economic stagnation is partially responsible, but rapid expansion of trade among the three members of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)-Canada, Mexico, and the United States-is likely to keep Canada and Mexico in the position of largest recipients of U.S. agricultural exports.

Other important destinations for U.S. agricultural exports include the European Union and Asia particularly China. 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 Canada, Mexico, the rest of the Americas, and Asia have risen. (For data on top export destinations, see Top 15 U.S. export destinations by fiscal Excel icon (16x16) or calendar Excel icon (16x16) year.)

Sources of Growth in U.S. Agricultural Exports

Since 2000, U.S. exports have expanded across bulk and high value product categories, with particularly strong growth among bulk commodities and processed high-value products. Middle-income countries have become the primary source of growth in U.S. agricultural exports since 2000, 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.

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Last updated: Thursday, September 06, 2012

For more information contact: Stephen MacDonald

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