America importing more fruit and veg

The US imports almost two-thirds of its fresh fruit and one-third of its fresh vegetables, and in general, these imports are climbing. But the Biden Administration is investing in making the nation’s food system more competitive and resilient. 
Sun 02/10/2022 by Julie Butler 
USDA ERS analysis shows bell pepper imports from Mexico in the summers of 2018–20 were up 742% on those in 2008–10.

The key factors driving America’s imports up are limited domestic production, seasonal gaps, produce that can be grown more efficiently abroad (such as asparagus, avocados, blueberries, green onions), the need to insure against shortfalls in US production (e.g. bagged salads), and transportation and marketing factors (moving some products from Mexico or Central America to NYC can be cheaper than trucking them from California). Of America’s top fresh fruit and vegetable imports last year, leading in value were blueberries and raspberries, with a combined value of $3.6 billion in 2021 (+22% YoY), followed by tomatoes (+2% to $2.8b), avocados (+7% to $2.7b), bananas ($2.5b), peppers (+9% to $1.9b) and grapes (+8% to $1.8b). The value of berry imports has risen the fastest over the past decade, while the value of banana imports fell. Mexico supplies about half of US fresh fruit imports by value, followed by Chile, Guatemala and Peru. Thanks to its fresh blueberries, Peru has enjoyed the fastest growth in fresh fruit exports to the US. (Source: Rural Migration News Blog #203.)

Fresh veg imports up 5% in value in 2021 

The US is a net importer of fresh-market vegetables (excluding potatoes) in both volume and value terms. In 2021, the value of such imports rose 5% to $10.4 billion while exports grew 3% to $2.4 billion. Mexico (79%) and Canada (11%) are the top two suppliers. Mexican and Canadian producers have dominated by offering greenhouse imports as well as organic options, though conventional and field-grown fresh vegetables still account for most imports. The volume of fresh vegetable imports was up 8% in 2021 reflecting greater volume for crops such as greenhouse tomatoes (+9%), onions (+19%), sweet corn (+21%), and leaf/romaine lettuce (+19%). The volume of fresh greenhouse tomatoes has skyrocketed 50% in the last decade, compared to just 4% for field-grown. Most field-grown import growth came from grape tomatoes (+57% since 2012). Market window creep is another trend to note, particularly when it comes to bell peppers and cucumbers. Summer is usually the top market window for US producers but Mexico has been eroding this window as it expands its own.

Inflation pushing up retail prices for fruit more than veg

As in many countries, logistical issues and the surging costs of inputs along the supply chain are affecting grower and consumer prices for produce. The average Consumer Price Index (CPI) for fresh fruit in the US was up 8.5% for Jan-May 2022 vs. the same period last year, while for fresh vegetables it was 4.3% and food-at-home in general averaged 7.5%, USDA (ERS) data shows. In general, higher consumer prices reflect increased diesel fuel prices and wages as well as rising farm prices for key crops such as potatoes, onions, lettuce, and broccoli. The general supply chain issues in the US have not been as severe for fresh vegetables, which mainly move overland via refrigerated trucks from Mexico and Canada. Rising fuel prices, wage rates, pandemic mitigation costs, strong consumer demand, low retail inventories, and driver and truck shortages have pushed up truck rates over the past two years, says the USDA Vegetables and Pulses Outlook (April 2022).

Shoring up America’s food supply

On June 1, the  US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the Food System Transformation Framework, designed to achieve a more fair, competitive and resilient food system. Measures relevant to fresh produce include:

  • Up to $300m in a new Organic Transition Initiative to help farmers change to organic.
  • Up to $75m to support urban farming.
  • $200m for food safety certification for specialty crops.
  • Up to $600m in financial assistance for supply chain infrastructure such as cold storage, refrigerated trucks, and processing facilities.
  • $100m to create a new Healthy Food Incentive Fund to improve school meal quality.  
  • $60m to boost Farm-to-School program purchases.
  • An increase to $155m in funding for entities offering healthy food in communities underserved by food retailers. 
  • Up to $90m to prevent and reduce food loss and waste.
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