Putting together a presentation for Farm Bureau not long ago, I found some statistics that illustrate the growth in fruit and vegetable imports over the past few decades.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics showed that imports - as a percentage of consumption – have   broadly increased for some commodities and spiked markedly for several others. Here is the comparison of select commodities:

Vegetable and melon imports as a % of U.S. consumption:
                                  1980 ----- 2008
Fresh asparagus         10.8% ----- 86.9%
Carrots                       7.8% -----  10.9%
Sweet corn                 0.1% -----     2.8%
Onions                        5.5% -----   12%
Garlic                        12.5%  -----  60%
Tomatoes                  22.3% -----   46.3%
Watermelon                 8.5 % -----  23.5%
Cantaloupe                12.8% ------  34.3%

Share of fresh fruit imports to U.S. consumption
                                     1980 -----   2008
Apples                          4.03% -----    7.63%
Avocados                       0.4% ------  64.14%
Blueberries                    11.07% ----- 44.82%
Grapes                          13.59% ----- 51.6%
Tangerines/tangelos         6.23% -----  23.7%
Peaches/nectarines          0.56% -----    9.75%
Oranges                          0%    -----      4.87%

TK: Avocados, blueberries, grapes, asparagus, garlic and even tomatoes have seen big growth in the role of imports for U.S. consumers.  Imports have fueled the growth of per capita consumption for many of these commodities; for example, grape per capita consumption has risen 18% since 1990, while tomato per capita consumption has soared by 22% from 1990 to 2008.

While U.S. agriculture commonly runs a healthy trade surplus, this is not true for fruits and vegetables.  The USDA reports fruit and vegetable imports are increasing faster than U.S. exports, with the overall fruit and vegetable trade deficit rising from $2.9 billion in 2004 to $3.9 billion in 2008. Total fruit and vegetable imports in 2008 totaled $9.6 billion, compared to $5.6 billion in export value.

Recent coverage of Fresh Del Monte by Ashley Bentley suggests that Wal-Mart is becoming more aggressive in banana retail pricing. From Ashley’s story:

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer reportedly lowered banana prices significantly but is not planning to change what it pays for the fruit. It is making up for the difference with some sharper pricing on other items, Del Monte chief executive officer and chairman Mohammad Abu-Ghazaleh confirmed during the call, in response to a caller’s question.

TK: As opposed to recent supermarket pricing of 62 cents to 64 cents per pound, 45 to 49 cents per pound for bananas will always seem like a “reasonable” retail price for me. I’m sure this is partly because that is the price range I became accustomed to for so many years.  In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the monthly retail aver-age price for bananas unwaveringly averaged in a range from 47 cents to 53 cents per pound from 1999 through 2007. Since March of last year, retail banana prices have averaged between 60 cents and 64 cents per pound.

What volume levels have supported higher f.o.b. prices for bananas in the past year and a half?  The USDA reports that from January through August this year, the value of U.S. banana imports has been up 12% while the volume of imports has been off 11%. Specifically, total U.S. banana imports from January through August totaled 2.56 million metric tons, off from 2.89 million metric tons for the same time last year.

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