After China’s 2018 response to US president Trump’s tariffs by retaliating against $110 billion of US exports, almost all US farm exports to China became subject to retaliation last year.
How have US agricultural exports fared in the interim? At the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA), encompassing the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, overall exports to China were down 32% in 2018 compared to 2017, and are down 21% in 2019, as of the end of March. These numbers are being driven by impacts on specific commodities, such as: soy exports—69% lower in 2018 than in 2017 (see sidebar on page 6); seafood exports—down 36%; dairy exports—down 41%; apple exports—down 26%; and exports of fresh cherries—down 33.4%.
NWSA handled agricultural exports of just under $5 billion in 2017. In 2018, it was just shy of $3.5 billion. Agricultural exports dropped from 224,000 TEU in 2017 to 169,000 TEU in 2018.
Agricultural exports at NWSA had been growing for five years “until they took a wrong turn” last year, noted Tong Zhu, NWSA’s chief commercial officer. Allowing that a strong dollar contributed to suppressed export levels, she added: “I can’t be convinced that was driven mainly by currency rates.”
At the port of Oakland, another major agricultural exporting gateway, outbound cargo was also down in 2018, although it saw surprising upticks in March and April of this year. Could it be that Chinese importers were loading up on commodities in advance of a tariff hike much as US importers did late last year?
“We have been shipping a lot of empties back to Asia,” said Mike Zampa, port spokesperson, noting that this has also been due to the surge of imports Oakland has seen over the last six months.
According to ajot.com¸ the US agricultural sector is particularly vulnerable to disruptions in international trading patterns, because, as Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, explained, “nothing we produce in agriculture or in forest products can’t be sourced somewhere else in the world.” “And if we don’t deliver affordably and dependably,” he added, “our foreign customer will go elsewhere to buy.”