The United States lost its place as the world’s largest wheat exporter a decade ago, and now its leadership in exports of corn, cotton and tree nuts is being challenged, said a new USDA report.
“Changes in global patterns of production and agricultural markets affected U.S. export competitiveness during the last two decades,” said the Economic Research Service, pointing to increasing competition from Brazil, Argentina, the EU and Australia.
Brazil could supplant the United States this marketing year as the No. 1 corn exporter for the second time ever, and despite some disadvantages “Brazilian leadership in corn exports may not be temporary,” said three University of Illinois agricultural economists in mid-March. China became the top importer of Brazilian corn in January.
In its report, the USDA looked at trends in corn, wheat, soybean, cotton and tree nut exports from 2000-21. The United States did not negotiate any new free trade agreements from 2012-20, potentially limiting its export opportunities in some emerging markets while competitors signed multiple FTAs during that period, said the four ERS authors.
“The United States continues to be the top exporter of corn, tree nuts and cotton while other competitors have penetrated the global soybean and wheat markets,” said the report. “In recent years, U.S. wheat production and participation in the global wheat market lagged behind the EU and Russia. Similarly, Brazil surpassed the United States as the top exporter of soybean oilseed and dramatically increased its participation in the global corn and cotton markets as well.”
Corn is the most widely grown crop in the United States, which is by far the world’s largest corn producer. Exports from Brazil, Argentina and Ukraine increased in during the past decade and helped drive down the U.S. share of the world market to 30% in 2020, compared to 71% in 2006.
“The importance of trade agreements to U.S. corn exports cannot be overstated,” said the ERS. From 2019-2021, the largest markets for U.S. corn were Mexico, Japan, Colombia, South Korea and Canada. “As previously discussed, the United States has trade agreements with all these countries.”
This year, Brazil could become the top global exporter as its shipments head for a record 50 million tonnes. Meanwhile, the 2022 corn crop was smaller than expected and high commodity prices and low water on the Mississippi River discouraged harvest time sales. Brazil is expected in coming years to plant more land to corn than the United States, which could help it overcome the U.S. advantage in yields per acre, said the University of Illinois analysts.
In 2014, the EU topped the United States as the leading wheat exporter, aided by a decline in U.S. production as corn and soybeans offered higher returns. “Competition from the EU, Russia, and Ukraine has contributed to the decline in U.S. wheat exports, even as wheat demand has steadily increased in developing countries where populations are increasing,” said the ERS.
The United States is the world leader in tree nut production and exports, “with specialized advantages in almonds, walnuts and pistachios,” said the ERS.
Cotton exports have fluctuated over the past two decades, and accounted for 30% of world trade in calendar year 2021. “U.S. cotton faces increasing export competition from Brazil, India and Australia,” said the USDA report.
Agricultural exports have been a key component of the farm economy since the 1970s. One-fifth of U.S. agricultural production is exported.
The report, “U.S. export competitiveness in select crop markets,” is available here.