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US Fruit and Vegetable Imports and Farm Workers

November 27, 2017

The US has exported more farm commodities than it imported since 1960. The agricultural trade surplus is expected to be $24 billion in 2017, down from over $40 billion in 2011 and 2014 but up from less than $5 billion in 2005 and 2006.

Soybeans and corn are the top US exports, but the US has a trade deficit in fruits and vegetables. The US imported fruits and vegetables worth $18 billion in 2015, and exported fruits and vegetables worth $6 billion, for a fruit and vegetable trade deficit of over $11 billion.

About half of the fresh fruit (including bananas) consumed in the US is imported, as are a quarter of the fresh vegetables. Mexico is the major supplier of most fresh vegetable imports, including tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers, and many fruits, including avocados, berries, and limes. Mexico accounted for 44 percent of US fruit and vegetable imports in 2015, followed by 12 percent from Canada and eight percent from Chile. The US has free-trade agreements with these leading importers of fruits and vegetables.

Most Americans welcome the year-round availability of fresh fruits and vegetables made possible by imports. The major comparative advantage of foreign producers is climate; most fresh fruit and vegetable imports arrive when US production is low, as with table grapes from Chile in winter and from Mexico in spring.

However, the same improved varieties and faster transport that allowed California to replace New Jersey as the garden state for the eastern seaboard is enabling Mexican and other foreign farmers to export more produce to the US. Take tomatoes. Mexican farmers now supply about half of the fresh tomatoes consumed in the US, in part because they grow many under protected culture or plastic structures that reduce pest and disease problems and increase yields. Mexican tomatoes tend to be picked when they are ripe, rather than picked green as in California and Florida and ripened after harvest.

US fruit and vegetable growers are divided on the virtues of freer trade. Most American farmers embrace free trade, convinced that ever richer consumers abroad want more high-quality US produce. Many of the farms in Mexico and elsewhere that export to the US are partnerships between US growers and marketers and local farmers. US partners often provide capital and technical and marketing expertise.

Some farmers, especially those in Florida who compete most directly with Mexican produce, want restrictions on fruit and vegetable imports, raising questions about imports that range from food safety to poor treatment of farm workers abroad. Florida farmers hope that NAFTA renegotiations will reduce competitive fruit and vegetable imports.

Importers of fruits and vegetables require growers abroad to maintain strict food safety protocols and to use systems that allow any suspicious produce to be traced to the field where it was grown. With the food safety argument less compelling than in the past, some US growers have turned to two other arguments for restricting imports: lower wages abroad and preserving nonfarm jobs in the US.

Wages are lower in Mexico and many other countries that export produce to the US. However, farmers abroad often provide more services to workers than in the US, where most farm workers live off the farm and commute to farm jobs in car and van pools. Many foreign farmers offer housing and food to the migrant workers they employ, raising their labor costs.

Some farm worker housing in the US and abroad is substandard, but many US farmers stopped providing housing in the 1970s and 1980s, so that their workers moved to nearby cities and now incur housing and transportation costs to get to jobs on farms.

The second issue involves farm workers supporting other US jobs. Some farmers argue that farm workers are the missing ingredient in a US food system that employs almost 10 percent of US workers. Without foreign farm workers, this argument runs, many nonfarm US workers will lose their jobs.

Most jobs in the US food system are in food service, eating and drinking places, and transportation and retailing. Most of these food-system jobs would exist whether fruits and vegetables are produced in the US or imported, as demonstrated by the fact that city-states with no farms such as Singapore have a similar share of their employment in the food-system as countries such as the US with farms. Food must be trucked, sold, prepared, and served whether it is grown in the US or imported, meaning that most food system jobs will remain even if US fruit and vegetable production shrink.

U.S. Agri-Food Employment

U.S. Agri-Food Employment

U.S. Agri-Food Employment

Food Stores
Food Processing
Food Wholesaling