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U.S. beef, pork shifting toward more exports

Trade at the forefront as African swine fever raises hopes for increased exports.

Over the last three decades, a structural shift towards more exports of beef and pork has been underway. According to agriculture economist David Widmar, before the 1990s, the U.S. imported more beef and pork than it exported. Since 1990, however, net exports as a share of production has trended higher.

Prior to 1990, net exports of beef and veal were negative, with the magnitude equal to -4% to -8% of production. By 1990, Widmar said a trend towards more exports began. While net exports were still negative in the early 2000s, the magnitude (down 2% of production) was smaller. In December 2003, the U.S. confirmed a case of BSE. By 2004, net exports plummeted after the U.S. was shut out of many key export markets. After several years, however, net exports (up 3%) turned positive in 2011.

Net exports then retreated through 2015 before trending higher again in 2018, when the U.S. exported more beef and veal than imported. Widmar said trade was roughly balanced in 2019, but the USDA estimates 2020 net exports will be equal to 2% of production.

“While it can be tempting to look at the recent data and focus on net exports being positive or negative, it’s essential not to lose sight of the bigger picture,” he said. “Over the last three decades, a rapid shift towards more exports has been underway.”

Similar to beef, Widmar said pork has also seen a significant shift over the last three decades. Before 1990, the U.S. imported slightly more pork than it exported as net exports were -1% to -3% of production. After turning lower in the 1980s, Widmar said net exports have trended higher for more than 30 years. In 2019 net exports were 19% of production and the USDA estimates net exports for 2020 will to reach 22% of production, the highest in 60 years.

Regarding chicken, Widmar relayed that the USDA first started reporting U.S. chicken net exports as a share of production in 1999. Overall, he said the U.S. imports very little chicken, while net exports have been equal to 15-20% of U.S. production.

Looking ahead, Widmar said trade is at the front of everyone’s mind.

“This is especially the case as U.S. livestock producers hope for even more exports in light of China’s African Swine Flu challenges,” he added.

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