(Sept. 17) Imports are taking a bigger slice of U.S. fresh produce consumption than ever before, according to a Sept. 10 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Titled “Increased U.S. imports of fresh fruits and vegetables,” the USDA report said that between 1990-92 and 2004-06, average annual U.S. imports of fresh fruit and vegetables surged from $2.7 billion to $7.9 billion.

The report said 44% of U.S. fresh fruit consumption and 16% of fresh vegetable consumption came from imports in 2003-05. That’s up from 31% for fresh fruit and 9% for fresh vegetables in 1983-85, respectively.

Sophia Huang, economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, said Sept. 12 that the trends show that vegetable imports are dominated by North American neighbors Mexico and Canada, while fruit imports show more diversity because of counter-season supply from the Southern Hemisphere countries.

The report said rising imports have not necessarily caused U.S. production to decline. For example, U.S. production of 10 major vegetables has increased 19% in the past 15 years, and production of noncitrus fruit has increased by 16% in the same span. With the exception of garlic output in California — which has retreated because of imports from China —the report said “imports have grown to satisfy increasing consumption, rather than to replace domestic production.”

The USDA report, co-authored by Sophia Huang and Kuo Huang, said rising consumer incomes, international trade agreements and advancing technology have led to growth in the volume and variety of U.S. fresh produce imports. While exports have risen, they have grown at a slower pace, and the USDA said the U.S. is “increasingly” a net importer of fresh produce.

The report said the average value of U.S. fresh fruit imports in 2004-06 was $4 billion — nearly equivalent to that of fresh vegetables (including fresh melons), at $3.9 billion. Average fresh fruit exports in 2004-06, at $2.5 billion, however, exceeded fresh vegetable exports of $1.7 billion.

That means that the balance of trade in fruit was less out of balance than for vegetables. Net fresh fruit imports were about $1.5 billion during 2004-06, compared with net fresh vegetable imports of $2.25 billion.

The fruit category has seen a rapid rise in the share of consumption accounted for by imports. Between 1983-1985 and 2003-05, the USDA reported the import share of U.S. citrus consumption rose from 2.3% to 15.5%, while noncitrus fruit (including bananas) showed a rise in the import consumption share from 41.2% to 53%. During that time period, the import share of fresh apples rose from 6% to 7.1%, while for oranges it increased from 1% to 4.2%. Grapes showed a large gain in import share, from 38% to 54.8%.

Meanwhile, the report said import share of consumption for fresh vegetables over the same time frame of 1983-1985 and 2003-05 increased from 9.3% to 16.3%.

“Even for vegetables with declining per capita consumption, such as potatoes and head lettuce, the import share of consumption increased over the past two decades — from 3.2% to 6.1% for potatoes and from 0.5% to 1.7% for head lettuce,” the report said.