The average American eats about 55 pounds of beef per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Imagine if the average Chinese person were to consume just a single pound of U.S. beef per year. With nearly 1.4 billion mouths to feed, this modest intake would represent a vast new opportunity for American beef producers.
Billions of dollars would flow into the U.S. economy—if the Chinese would eat only one pound of U.S. beef per person per year.
It sounds like a modest goal. And yet it’s a major aspiration.
Today, China continues to be virtually closed to U.S. beef as well as many other agricultural products. Prying open this market will be a main objective of President Trump’s top trade diplomats: U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Ambassador to China Terry Branstad, both confirmed to their posts in recent weeks.
Trade talks over beef will resume next week, as China inches closer to accepting U.S. beef, perhaps as early as July.
American beef producers already rely on foreign markets. Last year, we sold products worth $1.5 billion to Japan, our top export destination. South Korea, Mexico, Canada, and Hong Kong also bought large amounts of U.S. beef.
The example of South Korea is instructive—and a triumph of recent, bipartisan trade policy. A decade ago, South Korea was a relatively small market for us, with our beef exports valued at a little more than $100 million per year. Then our government approved the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement—a package negotiated by the Bush administration and finalized by the Obama administration.
It made so much sense that Republicans and Democrats agreed on its importance.
The result? Last year, our sales to South Korea topped $1 billion.
That’s a tenfold increase, compared to 2007. And we expect more gains in the future.
Who benefits? Lots of ordinary Americans. There are more than 700,000 cattle farms and ranches across the United States, and more than 90 percent of them are family owned or individually operated. They’re spread across the country. Our biggest cattle-raising state is Texas. The top five also include coastal California and the heartland states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.
Trade supports people up and down the food chain, too, from meatpackers and truck drivers to corn farmers who grow feed to wholesale sellers who connect buyers and sellers.
And this is just one example of what good trade policy can accomplish—and why we must pursue new opportunities relentlessly.
Around the world, we see a greater appetite for protein. As the middle class expands in developing countries, people want to eat more meat. Some prefer beef, others pork and poultry—and usually they want extra helpings of all three for their family.
China is the world’s most populous country and its hunger for beef is growing. We should make sure that American producers have a chance to satisfy it.
Ambassadors Lighthizer and Branstad might be just the right team to make it happen. Ambassador Lighthizer is an experienced negotiator who brings a measure of toughness to his job, something the Chinese will respect. Ambassador Branstad, a longtime governor of Iowa, knows the agricultural sector well and also enjoys a personal friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping that goes back more than three decades.
They’ll face plenty of challenges. The first comes from our competitors, especially the Australians and increasingly the South Americans. Everyone wants a piece of the Chinese market.
What’s more, the beef industry will have to approach a new trade relationship with China with special care. We’re good at what we do—and yet when it comes to processing meat and shipping it halfway around the world, a lot can go wrong. We must make sure our refrigeration guarantees that fresh meat stays fresh. We need to show zero tolerance for bone chips winding up where they don’t belong. We have to follow food-safety rules with enthusiasm. Each of these is extremely important to the Chinese as customers and U.S. beef producers like me as reliable sellers.
If we do this just right, we’ll enjoy an unprecedented opportunity with excellent potential for growth.
I’d be thrilled to see a billion Chinese people each consume a pound of U.S. beef per year—and to watch the money flow into our economy.
Imagine what two pounds per year might mean. Or three. Or more.