If the trend continues, ag imports could overtake exports by 2007, say Phil Paarlberg and Phil Abbott, Purdue economists.

The gap between export and import values is narrowing. U.S. ag exports are projected to climb by $500 million in the coming fiscal year, which began in October, to $56.5 billion. Imports are estimated to jump as much as $3.5 billion in 2003-04.

“A couple years back imports were $41 billion and this past year they were $45 billion,” Paarlberg says. “We expect them in the coming year to climb to $47 billion or $48 billion. The last time we were a net ag importer was in the 1950s.”

The rise in imports is closely tied to diet and lifestyle changes, Paarlberg says. Americans are consuming more foods either that aren't produced in the U.S. or in insufficient volumes to meet consumer needs.

Europe's refusal to accept biotech grain has little to do with the tightening ag trade balance, Abbott says. Instead of looking across the Atlantic Ocean, U.S. exporters should be focusing their attention on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

“We put too much emphasis on the European market,” Abbott says. “The markets that really matter to agriculture now are in Asia.”