(April 15) Riding the strong back of the U.S. economy, produce imports have practically doubled in the past decade, leaving exports further behind.

Total per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables rose 19% from 1982 to 1997. Tropical fruits and counter-seasonal fruit have helped fuel the increase in imports.

Fueling the import surge has been the rise in U.S. per capita income, from $24,000 in 1991 to $35,000 in 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported April 1.

From 1991-2001, imports of horticultural products doubled, from $8.6 billion to $17.2 billion, USDA said. Over the same period, U.S. horticultural exports rose 67%, from $6.6 billion to $11 billion.

EXPORT CHALLENGES

While U.S. exports have grown, the strong dollar has limited opportunities, and fruit and vegetable shipments also have been suppressed by restrictive market access policies around the world, the USDA found.

Those policies include high tariffs and direct and indirect subsidies to growers, the report said.

Japan’s economic troubles have also hurt U.S. export performance, the report said.

Kraig Naasz, president of the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va., said U.S. apple marketers continue to export about 25% of their crop, while imports comprise about 7% to 8% of the U.S. crop.

“Those figures remained relatively stable over the last several years,” he said.

However, he said the strong dollar has hurt exports, as has the fast growth in China’s exports of some fruit and vegetables.

“Worldwide supply continues to rise at a faster rate than U.S. production, and that production has to be sold somewhere,” he said.

SOME CONCERNS

Richard Kinney, executive vice president of Florida Citrus Packers Inc., Lakeland, said that while trade has traditionally been very good for Florida’s citrus industry, everything is not rosy.

When competing with cheap Cuban grapefruit and heavily subsidized Spanish citrus in Europe, he said, Florida marketers are faced with selling their fruit at what seem like Cadillac prices.

“We can compete on quality, but there is price resistance internationally at retail,” he said.

He said new trade agreements would not necessarily help matters, he said. The U.S. has had a difficult time opening markets like Chile and Mexico to U.S. citrus, and he said the potential of those markets is relatively small.

“We have already given up everything, but I fail to see we are going to move a lot of product to South America,” he said.

“We’re caught up in market access, but that is not going to solve every problem,” he said.

Kinney said harmonization is needed among trading partners.

“It is not harmonization on market access, it is harmonization on trading practices and subsidies,” he said.