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EU food exports hit record level

The European Union achieved record food exports in 2016, with the USA and China being its main markets. Food imports, however, slumped in the period, contributing significantly to the bloc's growing trade surplus.

The European Union's 28 countries produce a lot of food - so much so that the region exports more food than it imports, as measured by financial value. The European Commission (EC) reported on Thursday that the EU achieved a new all-time record of 130.7 billion euros ($138.4 billion) in 'agri-food exports' in 2016.

That's 1.7 billion euros, or 1.3 percent, above the 2015 number - and 29.4 billion euros, or 29 percent, above the 2011 number.

These numbers still include statistics from the United Kingdom, whose voters chose last summer to leave the European Union - but 'Brexit' hasn't been implemented yet, so for now, it still counts as an EU member nation.

Pig meat and olive oil were two categories that had strong year-on-year export gains.

In 2016, the ten most important export destinations for EU agri-food exports, ranked in order of total sales volume, were USA, China, Switzerland, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Hong Kong, Canada and Turkey, according to a report by the EC's Agriculture and Rural Development Directorate released Thursday.

Olivenöl und Oliven stehen auf einem Tisch (picture-alliance/chromorange)

European cold-pressed fresh olive oil.

The US bought 20.64 billion euros of EU agri-food products in 2016, up 2.5 percent from the year before. China bought 11.38 billion euros' worth, up a strong 12.0 percent.

Exports and imports

Going the other way, the top eight sources of agri-food imports into the EU were Brazil, USA, Argentina, China, Switzerland, Turkey, Indonesia, Ukraine, Ivory Coast, and India.

The 'agri-food' sector encompassed 7.5 percent of total EU goods exports in 2016. Offsetting those food exports are food imports, which totalled 6.6 percent of all goods imported into the EU. The net surplus of the agri-food sector in 2016 was 18.8 billion euros - nearly half the overall surplus of the EU in merchandise trade, which totalled 39.3 billion euros last year.

Several foodstuffs imported into the EU saw substantial increases in total value in 2016 compared to the previous year. These included cocoa beans, vegetable oils (other than palm and olive oils), fresh vegetables, citrus fruit and oilseeds (other than soya beans).

Some food exports can be controversial - for example, exports of European chicken parts to South Africa, which are alleged to undermine local farmers

Canada buys booze and chocolate, sells grains

Elfenbeinküste Kakao-Anbau (picture-alliance/dpa/L. Koula)

Ivory Coast leads the world in producing cocoa beans. The European chocolate confections in the picture at the top of this page wouldn't be possible without West Africa's cocoa plantations

The EU even has an agri-food trade surplus with Canada, the world's second largest country by geographic area. The EU exported 3.44 billion euros of agri-food products to Canada in 2016; going the other way, Canada exported just 2.19 billion euros of agri-food to EU countries.

The nature of the trade shows why Europe manages to sustain a trade surplus in comestibles despite the fact that it has far less farmland per capita than some of its trading partners. Canada sells mainly commodities to Europe - especially cereals (such as wheat or barley) and oilseeds (e.g. rapeseed or soya), as well as some vegetables. These are products with minimal value-added processing.

In contrast, EU food products exporters sell mainly value-added products to Canada - for example wine, beer, cider, vinegar, liqueurs; chocolates, candies, ice cream; pasta, pastries, biscuits, bread.

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