Economists warn U.S. could become agricultural importer

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, September 25, 2003 -- CropChoice news -- Associated Press: After more than 40 years of exporting more meat, grains and produce than it imports, the United States is on the brink of becoming a net agricultural importer, two economists warn.

If current trends continue, Purdue University economists Phil Paarlberg and Phil Abbott say agriculture imports could overtake exports by 2007, driven by a sluggish export market and consumers' growing appetite for foods grown overseas.

From mangos to baby back ribs, Americans are eating more foods that are either not produced in America or in amounts too small to meet demand, Paarlberg said.

He and Abbott said U.S. agriculture exports were projected to grow by about $500 million in the coming fiscal year to about $56.5 billion. Agriculture imports, meanwhile, are expected to grow as much as $3.5 billion to about $47.5 billion, during the same period, they said.

``We can see this gap narrowing. Where we were looking at an agricultural trade surplus five or six years ago of $15 billion to $20 billion, now it's under $10 billion,'' Paarlberg said.

While the export-import gap shrank to about the same point during the mid-1980s, he said the nation has not been a net agricultural importer since 1958-59.

Paarlberg said imports have generally been growing since the mid-1980s, driven in part because Americans are consuming more crops the nation produces little or none of, such as coffee, tea, cocoa and bananas.

At the same time, it is importing lower-quality meat for several countries for hamburger-grade cuts, wheat from Canada, even baby back ribs from Denmark -- all products it also produces.

Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis, said Americans were seeking out exotic produce in part because more of them are traveling overseas.

``In the old days it was rare for Americans to even have a passport, but now we have young people traveling in high school or college to somewhere far away and wonderful -- places that have their own types of unique and delicious produce,'' Bruhn said. ``Americans enjoy these and when they get home they want them.''

Bruhn said increased imports of exotic produce also were being driven by the growing number of Hispanic and Latin Americans who hunger for the fruits and vegetables of their native lands.

Center for Consumer Research:

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