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U.S. fruit and vegetable imports growing larger by the year

A September 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, compiled by Sophia Huang and Kuo Huang, states that U.S. imports of fresh fruit and vegetables have increased substantially, particularly since the 1990s.

Dominant suppliers are the North American Free Trade Agreement region for fresh vegetables, the Southern Hemisphere countries for off-season fresh fruit and equatorial countries for bananas.

Say what you will about the locally grown trend, but the strong growth in the volume and variety of fresh produce imports has allowed U.S. consumers to eat more fruit and vegetables and enjoy year-round access to fresh produce they would otherwise not have.

The report states that between 1990-92 and 2004-06, annual U.S. imports of fresh fruit and vegetables surged to $7.9 billion from $2.7 billion, with the share of total U.S. imports for agriculture rising to 13.3 percent from 11.5 percent. U.S. exports of fresh produce also rose, albeit less rapidly. As a result, the United States has increasingly become a net importer of fresh produce.

While production, marketing and distribution of fresh fruit and vegetables are similar, there are important differences between the two segments for U.S. trade.

The average value of U.S. fresh fruit imports in 2004-06 was nearly equivalent to that of fresh vegetables (which oddly enough, includes fresh melons), at $4 billion and $3.9 billion, respectively. However, average fresh fruit exports in 2004-06, at $2.5 billion, exceeded fresh vegetable exports of $1.7 billion.

Thus, net imports of fresh fruit were about $1.5 billion, considerably less than net fresh vegetable imports of $2.25 billion.

As of 2007, U.S. fresh produce trade was dominated by a few regions. Fresh vegetable imports from the North American Free Trade Agreement regions — Mexico and Canada — were over $3.2 billion, which comprises the single-largest trade channel among regions of U.S. fresh produce trade.

U.S. fruit trade is more diverse than vegetable trade in terms of foreign trade partners. Whereas fresh vegetable trade is largely concentrated within NAFTA and Asia (95 percent of exports and 84 percent of imports), fresh fruit trade with those regions is less significant (85 percent of exports and 28 percent of imports).

Because fresh produce is highly perishable and seasonal, geography has traditionally played a major role in the global trade patterns of fresh produce.

Today, phytosanitary measures to prevent the spread of pests or diseases have become an increasingly critical factor in determining trade partners. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, commonly referred to as APHIS, plays a central role in assuring the health of commodities imported by the United States.

The main sources of U.S. fresh fruit imports are banana-exporting countries, and the Southern Hemisphere and NAFTA regions. The banana exporters — Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama — are the largest providers of fresh fruit to the United States.

Together, these countries supply 36 percent of total U.S. fresh fruit imports, with bananas making up more than three-quarters of the fresh fruit value shipped by these equatorial countries to the United States. Southern Hemisphere countries — Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and Peru — supply 32 percent of U.S. fresh fruit imports. The NAFTA region supplies 27 percent of U.S. fresh fruit imports.

Bananas, grapes and tropical fruit, including pineapples, mangos, papayas and guavas, accounted for nearly two-thirds of the value of U.S. fresh fruit imports in 2004-06, with bananas alone representing a 44 percent value share of the combined imports for these three major fruit products.

The structure of the U.S. fresh fruit import mix, however, has changed substantially, particularly since the 1990s, as grape and tropical fruit imports have grown faster than bananas.

Blueberries are a good example of an item that has grown quickly and hugely over the past decade. Other fruits and vegetables, such as asparagus from Peru, are also inching toward the list of items that are outpacing banana imports.