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The Rise in Shipping Costs and U.S. Agricultural Exports

The recent spikes in freight costs are having a significant impact on global trade. The average cost of shipping a standard large container (a 40-foot-equivalent unit) has surpassed $10,000 in recent months, more than four times higher than prices a year ago. Most of this is due to higher freight rates for routes out of China. For instance, container rates for shipments from Shanghai to New York increased from $2,500 to more than $20,000 in September 2021 (Freightos Data, 2021). To put this in context, an east coast buyer that spent $100,000 last year in freight costs when importing goods from China is now paying almost $1,000,000 in freight costs to import the same items. Given the high demand for containers out of China, there has been a shortage of containers at U.S. ports affecting exports. What does all of this mean for U.S. agricultural exports? Once consequence is that the bulk shipping rates have also increased from $1,000 to over $5,000 in October (now around $3,400) (Trading Economics, 2021), which affects commodities like soybeans and corn. 

As we begin our research on the effects of shipping rates on U.S. agricultural exports, it is important to first understand the importance of different modes of shipping for U.S. agriculture. The figure shows the share (volume) of U.S. exports across product categories by different shipping modes (bulk, container, and air). To be expected, bulk commodities like wheat, corn, sorghum, and soybeans are most reliant on bulk carriers (more than 90% of all shipments by volume), whereas many products rely on both container and bulk shipping (e.g., poultry). U.S. exports of livestock products like beef, pork, and cheese are heavily reliant on container shipping (90% of all shipments). These products are likely to be the most affected by the recent spike in container rates and shipping costs.

Share of Commodity Export Volume by Shipping Mode: 2003-2021

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, USA Trade® Online

Sources: 

Freightos Data (2021) FBX Routes. https://fbx.freightos.com/freight-index/FBX03

Trading Economics (2021) Baltic Exchange Dry Index. https://tradingeconomics.com/commodity/baltic

U.S. Department of Commerce (2021). USA Trade® Online. U.S. Census Bureau. https://usatrade.census.gov/

Muhammad, Andrew, and Michael Adjemian. “The Rise in Shipping Costs and U.S. Agricultural Exports“. Southern Ag Today 1(51.4). December 16, 2021. Permalink

Professor and Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy
University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture