Inside the Market

Are U.S. Crop Exports an Endangered Species?

Todd Hultman
By  Todd Hultman , DTN Lead Analyst
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(Olivia Sabeskaya, Getty Images)

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower started what would later be called the Food for Peace program, an effort to take America's big grain surpluses and use them in a way that would fight world hunger and promote U.S. interests abroad.

It was a practical economic solution with humanitarian benefits that was hoped would also limit the appeal of communism and promote democracy around the world. Foreign policy is inherently complicated, and reasonable people can disagree about the level of goodwill achieved, but it did seem to have positive benefits for the U.S.

In 2023, we find a much different world for U.S. grain exports, one that is in decline. It has been more than 10 years since the U.S. led the world in soybean exports and seven years since the U.S. led wheat exports. Even U.S. corn exports were knocked off the top of the ladder in the 2022-23 season that just ended in August. USDA estimated 1.625 billion bushels (bb) of corn exports for the U.S., the lowest total in 10 years and well short of Brazil's 2.2 bb total. The world is changing, and in the case of grain exports, there is no easy end in sight to declining market share for the U.S.

In the case of wheat, it was a matter of time before other countries caught up. Wheat is grown on every continent except Antarctica and doesn't require the most fertile land to get a decent crop as long as fertilizers are available. Here in the U.S., wheat acres have been on the decline since the late 1990s, increasingly swapped for corn and soybean rotations after ethanol brought a new market to corn.

For corn and soybeans, Brazil is clearly the rising Goliath in terms of adding new cropland. Just last year, USDA estimated Brazil would increase cropland by 49 million acres by 2031, a pace the U.S. can't match.

The world has changed a lot since President Eisenhower's Food for Peace program, and a new group is now exerting its influence over world trade. The five nations, known as BRICS, are made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. China is a major investor in many developing countries, and along with Russia, the two make sure Brazil's farmers have access to all the fertilizer they need. Despite Western sanctions, Russia continues to make money on oil sold to China and India, two countries with big populations that will need more food and oil in the future. The group is also wanting to add six more nations to its club, including Argentina, which is already financially obligated to China. It's no wonder Russia is trying to add Ukraine to its list of holdings. New challenges are emerging, and the stakes are high for U.S. agriculture. I have to wonder what Eisenhower would think.


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Todd Hultman