The Trade Game: Foods the U.S. Buys and Sells Around the Globe

America produces enough to send crops around the world—while importing a significant share to feed ourselves too.

(Photo: Anthony Bolante/Reuters)

Jun 29, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Food represents just a small slice of what the United States imports and exports every year—roughly 5 percent and 9 percent, respectively, according to CIA World Factbook figures. But when you look at what constitutes those slight percentages of America’s global trade, things look very different: While 15 percent of the overall food supply is imported, half of fresh fruits and 20 percent of vegetables are. For seafood, we import a full 80 percent of what we eat, despite having plentiful resources in our own waters.

Some of these quirks have to do with taste, as is the case with fish, while others are dictated by trade pacts and globalization. But while all have reasons, that doesn’t mean they make perfect sense. Here’s the rundown on our major trading partners and the things we ship back and forth.


(Illustrated by Lauren Wade)

The next time the price of farmers market beef that grew up chewing clover in the next county over makes you balk, take a moment to tally the unseen costs of its cheaper supermarket counterpart. Much of the grass-fed beef in grocery stores is from Australia—it’s where Organic Valley gets all its beef—which means that all-beef hot dog or pastured patty racked up nearly 10,000 air miles before it arrived on the shelves; not exactly a model of sustainability. That’s just one item on the grocery list. If the day kicks off with Brazilian coffee and winds down with tacos stuffed with shrimp flown in from China, our healthiest meals seem to land on the table with a heavy carbon footprint.


(Illustrated by Lauren Wade)

With more than 1 billion mouths to feed, China is hungry, and America’s breadbasket provides. In 2012, China became the lead destination for U.S. exports, knocking Canada from the top spot. Our soybeans, wheat, corn, and cotton went from a 500-mile jaunt to our neighbor to the north to a sojourn of nearly 7,000 miles across the globe. Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, with their hearty appetites for beef and pork, also get the bulk of their groceries from the U.S. All told, we send $144 billion of agricultural exports to dinner plates across the globe.