US farm exports hit three-year low in 2023 as China slows buying

Source: By Karen Braun, Reuters • Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2024

NAPERVILLE, Illinois, Feb 7 (Reuters) – U.S. exports of agricultural and related products reached a value of $191 billion in 2023, down 10% from 2022’s record as both commodity prices and shipment volumes declined.

That marks a three-year low though is similar to the 2021 levels, and it reflects competition from key suppliers, particularly when it comes to satisfying Chinese demand.

Data published by the U.S. Census Bureau on Wednesday shows exports of bulk commodities, which include top-grossing items like soybeans, corn, wheat and cotton, hit a 10-year low by volume in 2023. That volume was down 17% from 2022, the largest year-on-year tumble since 1985.

Last year’s U.S. bulk commodity exports were still a 10-year low even when subtracting China’s portion, though the annual decline shrinks to 10%, the same as in 2022, China excluded. These declines were driven by high prices and a supply increase in rival exporting countries.

Top exporter Brazil is a prime example as its combined corn and soy shipments in 2023 totaled nearly 158 million metric tons, some 29% higher than 2022’s record. U.S. corn-plus-soy exports last year totaled 94 million tons, down 18% on the year to a four-year low.

This uncomfortable predicament for U.S. exporters was emphasized in December as China was the destination for 38% of the cargoes, down from the month’s three-year average of 59%. Outside of the 2018 trade war, that was China’s lowest share of December U.S. soybean shipments since 2002.

Despite the decline in the farm sector, all U.S. exports, including goods and services, rose 1% in 2023 to a new record of $3.05 trillion. However, that annual growth rate is slim compared with 18% and 19% observed in 2022 and 2021, respectively.

Agriculture and related products accounted for 6.2% of all U.S. exports last year, a four-year low and down from shares above 7% in the previous three years.

DECREASES AND INCREASES

By value, last year’s U.S. bulk commodity exports declined 22% from 2022’s high. The average export cost of U.S. soybeans in 2023 fell 5% on the year and the corn cost eased 10%, though both were still higher than in 2021.

U.S. wheat export prices were down 16% last year and cotton prices fell 19%, and those combined with large annual volume declines. U.S. cotton shipments fell 18% on the year to a seven-year low, and wheat shipments were the lightest since 1971, down 13% on the year.

U.S. soybean oil exports in 2023 plunged 76% on the year as the focus increasingly shifts toward domestic use, and the volume was by far the smallest in records back to 1967. Beef and beef product exports slipped 12% from 2022’s high, hitting a three-year low due to a pullback from Asian buyers.

Not everything was grim for U.S. ag exports last year as soybean meal shipments reached a record 14.1 million tons, some 10% above the prior high set in 2018. Both years featured big crop losses in top meal exporter Argentina, and better 2024 harvest prospects mean the U.S. meal boost may have been temporary.

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Pork and pork product exports rose 8% by volume in 2023 though stayed below the strong Chinese demand years of 2020 and 2021. A bump in domestic corn processing allowed U.S. ethanol exports last year to rise 9% to a four-year high.

BY COUNTRY

By value, Canada, China and Mexico accounted for about half of all U.S. agricultural and related exports in 2023, with Canada slightly edging China for the first time in four years.

Mexico claimed a record 15.6% share of last year’s U.S. ag exports, up from the prior high of 13.9% in 2022. Canada accounted for 17.3% of the total U.S. value, its highest since 2006.

China’s portion dropped to a four-year low of 16.6% from a record 19.2% in 2022, and China’s 2023 share was similar to those observed in 2014 and 2016, for example.

Karen Braun is a market analyst for Reuters. Views expressed above are her own.

 

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