February 9, 2005 | By: Aimee Heald-Nielson
LEXINGTON, Ky.

The United States is the world’s largest food exporter. But agricultural policy observers are beginning to see the United States on the verge of becoming a net food importer, said Craig Infanger, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture economist.

“The latest government estimates forecast record agricultural exports of $62 billion for 2004,” he said. “That’s a jump of $6 billion from 2003. Big increases in foreign sales to Asia, especially China, are driving up exports and keeping the United States the world’s major food supplier.”

Infanger said that agricultural exports have been similar to a roller coaster over the past decade with big swings up and down. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is predicting a decline in agricultural exports for 2005, stating the decline could be about $4 billion as a result of increased competition and lower prices for cotton, wheat and soybeans.

Food imports have been steadily rising for four years. There were a few months in 2004 when the United States imported more food than it exported.

“Of course this does not make the United States a net food importer – yet,” Infanger said. “But the trend on agricultural trade is clear if you look at the yearly summary data. The agricultural trade surplus – the difference between exports and imports – has deteriorated since 1996 when it was $20 billion. But with rising imports and roller coaster exports, the trade surplus next year is projected at only $2.5 billion.”

Infanger believes free trade agreements are making the U.S. market more open for new products, thus causing the rise in food imports.

“With the changing tastes of the American consumer and an improving economy, you can understand why imported foods are the fastest growing section of the typical supermarket,” he said. “Our food stores are now stocked with fruits and vegetables year-round with the origin and source changing with the seasons. That’s why horticultural products are the largest component of agricultural imports.”

The steady increase in agricultural imports is a trend that Infanger said will not go away. Consumers expect a wide variety of foods from around the globe. He said exports will vary with production levels, global competition and the value of the dollar.

“It seems clear to me that unless the value of U.S. agricultural exports were to somehow set new records every year, the United States is likely to become a new food importer in 2006,” Infanger said.”

Contact: 

Writer: Aimee Nielson 859-257-4736, ext. 267
Contact: Craig Infanger 859-257-7274