A worldwide view: the most imported and exported foods
An in-depth analysis of the world’s most imported and exported food products, including which countries traded them most.
Why do countries import and export food?
Countries import and export food products for a variety of reasons.
Let us start with food imports. Besides the obvious fact that food is needed for survival, countries tend to import food products that they lack either because they are unable to produce the food items in question, or because they are unable to produce the in-demand food products with any reliability.
Other times, they do so out of profit motivations, such as when a particular food product is already locally produced. In such cases, the food product being imported is facing such high domestic demand, that even the local produce is unable to meet the existing demand. When demand outstrips supply, food importers who bring in an additional amount of that same food group would be able to charge higher prices, leading to higher profit margins.
Conversely, countries export food products that have been produced in excess, and which also face a high overseas demand. In rarer cases where the food product is native to the exporting country, such as Australia’s Greenlip Abalone, export prices can sometimes reach exorbitant levels.
A country's food trade can thus significantly influence its gross domestic product (GDP), exchange rate, inflation rate, and interest rate. This impact is made even more so, given that food products are essential commodities required for human survival and daily sustenance. Their wide availability and high demand also provide many retail and commercial trading opportunities.
In this article, we take a closer look at the world’s biggest food exporting and importing countries, as well as the most exported and imported food products of 2020, a historic year during which a global pandemic struck and disrupted supply chains everywhere.
Top 10 Food Trading Countries - The US Is The World's Import And Export Leader
According to the Foreign and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, the top 10 food-exporting and -importing countries in 2020 were:
- The Netherlands
Of the 10 countries, the US - the world’s largest economy by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), had imported and exported the highest trade value of food commodities at $294.3 billion.
China, the second most populated country globally, came in slightly behind, trading $260 billion worth of food products that same year. The East Asian superpower accumulated that tally almost entirely on imports alone, which amounted to $194 billion, against just $66 billion in exports.
Germany, Europe’s largest economy in terms of GDP and home to 83 million consumers 1ranked a distant third for food import and export values at $175 billion.
Despite its relatively small population, The Netherlands ranked high on the table at fourth place, importing and exporting $170 billion worth of food goods in 2020. It achieved a food trade surplus (positive trade balance), as total food exports ($100 billion) exceeded total food imports ($70 billion).
The UK recorded $87 billion worth of food imports and exports, the eighth highest in the pandemic’s first year. However, unlike most of the other countries on this list, its export value was considerably lower at a value of $26.7 billion. This meant that the UK ran a rather significant food trade deficit, or a negative trade balance of $62 billion.
The UK’s lower export value by the end of 2020 was also exacerbated, in large part, by Brexit. Eurostat data showed that UK exports plummeted 14% after the country left the European Union (EU).2
Notably, the world’s third largest economy, Japan, did not factor into this list. Nevertheless, the Land of the Rising Sun imported the sixth highest amount of food products in 2020.
Now that we have identified the biggest food-importing and -exporting countries, let us look at the most imported and exported food products from the same period.
World’s Most Traded Food Products
The world's gone b-a-n-a-n-a-s
FAO data showed that bananas were the most imported food in 2020, with an import quantity of 25.2 million units. The US imported the most bananas globally, with 4.7 million units valued at $2.55 billion in total. One reason for banana’s high import quantity could be the fact that bananas are one of the most durable fruits, having the ability to stay fresh for up to a week in some cases.
Next in line is Beer of Barley, with an import quantity of 17.1 million units and a total monetary value of $16.9 billion. While wine only came in third in terms of import quantity at 11.2 million units, it recorded a much higher import value of $38.4 billion.
Fourth place was cheese, which had an import quantity of 7.4 million units and import value of $34 billion. A noteworthy point is that both wine and cheese topped beer when it came to import value.
When compared to other food commodities, olive oil saw a lower import quantity of 2.6 million units. The lower quantity was likely due to the olive oil shortages that year. The data showed that both Italy and the US imported the most olive oil, while Spain and Italy exported the most among all countries polled.
Meanwhile, Britain's beloved tea leaves had an even smaller import value than olive oil. Like olive oil, tea leaves also faced a shortage due to climate-related factors in some of the world’s biggest tea producers in the world, which led to lower production volume and import value.
|Commodity||Top 3 Importers (Quantity)||Top 3 Exporters (Quantity)|
2. Costa Rica
|Olive Oil||1. Italy
|Beer of Barley||1. US
|Tea Leaves||1. Pakistan
3. Sri Lanka
Top 10 Food Imports by Value – 20213
|China, Mainland||Soya Beans||2021||$53.52 billion|
|China, Mainland||Meat of Cattle Boneless, Fresh or Chilled||2021||$11.2 billion|
|US||Food Preparations N.E.C||2021||$10.71 billion|
|US||Undenatured ethyl alcohol of an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 80% vol; spirits, liqueurs, etc||2021||$10.69 billion|
|India||Palm Oil||2021||$9.56 billion|
|China, Mainland||Maize (corn)||2021||$8 billion|
|US||Crude organic material n.e.c||2021||$7.3 billion|
|China, Mainland||Meat of pig with bone, fresh or chilled||2021||$7.2 billion|
Around the world, there was an ever-surging demand for soya beans - a globally traded commodity produced in both temperate and tropical countries. Not only are soya beans a key source of vegan protein when made into food products like tofu and food substitutes, they also represent 27% of worldwide vegetable oil production.4
The appetite for vegan foods has also increased in recent years, with a considerable number of businesses keen to secure a piece of the proverbial cake. When we looked at all food imports globally, we found that soya beans were one of the most imported food commodities in 2020, with China leading the pack.
Overall, economic superpowers, namely China and the US, imported the most food products in 2020 - from soya beans to wine and pastries. But which countries were exporting these highly sought-after commodities?
Top 10 Food Exports by Value - 20215
|Brazil||Soya Beans||2021||$38.63 billion|
|US||Soya Beans||2021||$27.52 billion|
|Indonesia||Palm Oil||2021||$26.65 billion|
|US||Maize (Corn)||2021||$19.11 billion|
|Netherlands||Cruse organic material n.e.c||2021||$15.07 billion|
|Malaysia||Palm Oil||2021||$14.20 billion|
|US||Food Preparations||2021||$9.94 billion|
|India||Rice, paddy (rice milled equivalent)||2021||$9.62 billion|
|New Zealand||Whole Milk Powder||2021||$9.56 billion|
From a global perspective, Brazil and the US exported the highest amount of soya beans. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the US, Brazil, and Argentina produce around 80% of the world's soy.
Palm oil, grown and harvested mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia, achieved significant export values in 2020 as well, with Indonesia exporting $17.4 billion worth of palm oil and Malaysia exporting $9.81 billion worth of palm oil.
Wine was next highest on the list, with France being the prime exporter globally, exporting $9.94 billion worth of wine in 2020 alone. Interestingly, the export quantity of wine for France was a lot lower than both Spain and Italy - indicating that France's value per export was a lot higher in price per unit when compared to Spanish and Italian wines, a fact that wine connoisseurs should attest to.
How will food trading evolve beyond 2023?
It came as no surprise that financial giants such as Germany and the US recorded some of the highest food trade surpluses worldwide, thanks to substantial amounts of cheese, corn, and other sought-after food exports. In view of the food shortages in recent years (owing to the Ukraine War, lingering effects of the pandemic, and supply chain disruptions), how will global food trading be impacted in 2023 and beyond?
Although food prices have been declining since March 2022, IG analyst Axel Rudolph believes that food in general ‘will remain more expensive than it was before’, since ready-meal producers, restaurants, supermarkets and more would be seeking to ‘make the most of their now higher profit margins to make up for the profits they lost out on over the Covid years’.
Whether food import and export quantities will climb higher in the coming years will also be dependent on how food protectionist policies will evolve in the face of new political and socioeconomic developments.
Interested in learning how to trade food and other soft commodities? Find out everything you need to know about commodity trading with IG. Combined with out-of-hours trading, you will be able to enjoy extended access to various markets, potentially allowing you to maximise profit-making opportunities and minimise any risks on existing positions.
The data points referenced throughout this article lists each country's biggest food imports and exports during 2020. They also highlight the world’s most imported and exported food products, with the aim of providing readers with key, digestible information regarding global food trading.
1Foreign Agricultural Service - Germany: Exporter Guide
2The Guardian - Brexit led to 14% fall in UK exports to the EU in 2021
3Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - Major Commodities Importers
4World Wildlife - Soya Beans Overview
5Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - Major Commodities Exporters
The information on this page does not contain a record of our trading prices, or an offer of, or solicitation for, a transaction in any financial instrument. IG Bank S.A. accepts no responsibility for any use that may be made of these comments and for any consequences that result. No representation or warranty is given as to the accuracy or completeness of this information. Consequently any person acting on it does so entirely at their own risk. Any research provided does not have regard to the specific investment objectives, financial situation and needs of any specific person who may receive it and as such is considered to be a marketing communication. Although we are not specifically constrained from dealing ahead of our recommendations we do not seek to take advantage of them before they are provided to our clients. See full non-independent research disclaimer.
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