U.S. beef exports totaled 2,566.7 million pounds in 2020, down 2.3 percent from the previous year but still the third largest annual beef export total. The COVID-19 pandemic caused sharp disruptions in beef exports at times during the year with monthly exports down over 30 percent year over year in May and June. However, exports recovered by year end with combined November and December beef exports up 12.6 percent year over year. Figure 1 shows the shares of U.S. beef exports in 2020.
Japan is the largest market for U.S. beef, increasing by 3.7 percent in 2020 to the second highest level ever, after declining in 2019 from the 2018 all-time peak. South Korea has been the fastest growing beef market in recent years in terms of total volume and has been the second largest beef export market since 2016. Beef exports to South Korea decreased by 2.1 percent in 2020 from the 2019 peak. Japan and South Korea combined to account for 51 percent of total beef exports in 2020.
Mexico was the third largest U.S. beef export market from 2014-2019 but dropped sharply in 2020 due pandemic impacts and macroeconomic weakness. Total exports to Mexico were down 24.7 percent year over year in 2020. Beef exports to Mexico were down an average of more than 56 percent year over year for each of the months from April-September but finished the year strong with November and December exports up by 50.7 percent year over year.
Combined beef exports to China and Hong Kong increased 28.8 percent to become the third largest destination for U.S. Though the data for China and Hong Kong are reported separately, it is important to look at the total for the two since they are effectively one market now. Individually, beef exports to China increased by 271.0 percent year over year in 2020, more than offsetting a 4.7 percent year-over-year decrease in beef exports to Hong Kong.
Beef exports to Canada increased 6.8 percent in 2020 from the previous year and is the fifth largest beef export market. Taiwan is the No. 6 market for U.S. beef and was unchanged from year-earlier levels in 2020. Beef exports to Taiwan jumped sharply in 2018, adding to an increasingly diverse portfolio of export markets for U.S. beef. The remaining 10 percent of beef exports includes small amounts to 120 different countries. Most of this remaining total includes exports to a broad set of countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Chile, Guatemala, Singapore, Columbia and the Bahamas.
U.S. beef exports are expected to increase modestly in 2021 to reach the second highest level behind the 2018 export record. Keys to export growth include continued growth in exports to the China/Hong Kong market and recovery of beef exports to Mexico. — Derrell S. Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialist