Agricultural Trade

The value of U.S. agricultural exports declined in 2015, particularly among major bulk exports. Meanwhile, U.S. imports grew, but at a slower pace than in previous years. The leading U.S. exports are grains/feeds, soybeans, livestock products, and horticultural products. The largest U.S. imports are horticultural and tropical products.


U.S. trade surplus smallest since 2007

U.S. agricultural exports were valued at $140 billion in 2018, a 1-percent increase relative to 2017. Export growth was hampered by reduced exports to Asia, particularly for soybean exports. Imports grew by 6 percent in 2018 to $129 billion. Imports have grown at a faster rate than exports since 2016, driven in part by strong domestic economic growth. These shifts in U.S. agricultural trade produced a trade surplus in 2018 of $10.9 billion, the smallest surplus since 2006.

Lower oilseed exports slowed agricultural export growth in 2018

The value of U.S. agricultural exports increased slightly in 2018, driven by gains in all major commodity groups except oilseeds and oilseed products. Total growth was limited by an 11 percent decline in oilseed and oilseed product exports relative to 2017. As a share of total export value, horticultural product exports represented the largest category with $34.2 billion–or 24% of total agricultural exports–exported in 2018. After declining in 2018, oilseed and oilseed product exports fell to the fourth largest export category after ranking second in 2016 and 2017.

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. agricultural imports consist of horticultural and tropical products

50 percent of U.S. agricultural imports are horticultural products: fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, wine, essential oils, nursery stock, cut flowers, and hops. Sugar and tropical products such as coffee, cocoa, and rubber comprised just under 18 percent of agricultural imports in 2015. Imports of vegetable oils, processed grain products, red meat, and dairy products have grown significantly in recent years.

Canada remains the top destination for U.S. agricultural exports in 2018

Canada remained the largest market for U.S. agricultural exports in 2018, followed by Mexico, the European Union, Japan, and China. Before 2018, China had been the largest or second largest market for agricultural goods each year since 2008. The steep decline in exports to China was driven by trade disputes between the U.S. and China that led to a steep reduction in oilseed exports among other commodities.

Canada and Mexico are the two largest suppliers of U.S. agricultural imports

Canada and Mexico remain the United States' largest suppliers of agricultural products ($22.2 billion and $19.3 billion in 2013-15 respectively), mostly consumer-oriented goods such as horticultural products, red meats, and snack foods. The European Union is a close third, accounting for $18.9 billion worth of U.S. agricultural imports in 2013-15, with horticultural products accounting for more than half the value. South America--led by Brazil, Chile, and Colombia--averaged $13.7 billion in U.S. imports over the past 3 years, consisting largely of horticultural, sugar, and tropical products in which it has a comparative or seasonal advantage.

East Asia and North America remain top regions for U.S. agricultural exports

From 2013 to 2015, East Asia and North America combined to account for about 62 percent of U.S. agricultural exports. East Asia--led by China, Japan, and South Korea--was the largest market, with a collective 34-percent share. The share of U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico has increased and accounted for 28 percent of world exports over the last 3 years. The European Union is the third largest regional destination, followed closely by Southeast Asia (led by the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia). Meanwhile, South America is a shrinking market, with the noticeable exception of Colombia.

Exports expand the market for U.S. agricultural products

Exports account for a large share of the total volume of U.S. production for select agricultural products. For example, over 70 percent of the volume of U.S. production of tree nuts (largely almonds) and cotton were exported in 2011-13, as was more than 50 percent of rice and wheat production. Overall, the export share of U.S. agricultural production averaged 20 percent from 2011 to 2013 based on volume, the same average annual share since 2000.

American diet includes many high-value imported products

U.S. consumers rely heavily on imports for certain products where demand far outweighs domestic production capacity. Over 95 percent of coffee/cocoa/spices and fish/shellfish products consumed in the United States are imported, as are about half of fresh fruits and fruit juices and almost a third of wine and sugar. As high U.S. incomes drive consumption, the volume of U.S. agricultural imports has increased by 4 percent annually, on average, since 2000.

Last updated: Tuesday, August 20, 2019

For more information, contact: Bryce Cooke and Alex Melton