For anyone in flour milling inclined to examine statistics, hardly any numbers are as fascinating as those showing that the United States actually imports more wheat flour and wheat food products than it exports. Considering the history of American milling that began well before the birth of the nation itself, this is a startling transformation for an industry that at one time ranked as the world’s leading exporter of flour. On that export leadership score, America has been hugely outpaced by countries like Turkey and Kazakhstan that have a geographic advantage as well as great help from national governments doing much to stimulate the prosperity of their expanding domestic milling industries. That is markedly different from the total absence of caring in Washington.

American millers wisely have chosen in recent years not to pursue governmental support to spur wheat flour exports. Efforts have focused on emphasizing relief aid as U.S.-made products and assuring that regulatory-related restrictions are limited. Indeed, it would be through a partnership with advocates seeking to stimulate shipments of U.S. wheat abroad that business could best be promoted. Wheat farmers beginning some time ago were inclined to neglect the lessons that should have been learned in the immediate post-World War II years. That lesson was that building enduring export markets for wheat depended largely on stressing quality wheat flour made by U.S. mills.

To note that wheat flour imports have expanded while exports have shrunk, as startling as that may be, is not to raise any cause for concern among U.S. millers. That is best explained by the growth in the size of the U.S. domestic flour market to the point that both exports and imports account for only a small share of the total. The U.S. domestic supply of flour is made up of production plus imports, which in recent years was near 430 million hundredweights. Imports in 2014 of 14.5 million hundredweights and exports of 9.3 million accounted for 3% and 2%,
respectively. Many decades ago, flour exports drew nearly half of the supply. Not so incidentally, the present-day supply is the largest in history, thanks to growth in domestic consumption propelled mainly in recent years by population gains. Actual output by U.S. mills falls a percentage point or so below fully supplying domestic consumption, with the deficit filled by the import surplus over exports.

Flour exports and flour imports include besides flour those products containing flour, primarily bread and pasta. In both exports and imports, product shares have risen. As should be expected, Canada leads as the largest destination for U.S. flour exports and the leading supplier of imports. Mexico ranks second in both. Although data are not available to indicate just how the flour moving in trade is being used, it seems likely that a considerable part represents intra-company moves between plants on both sides of the border under common ownership.

Even with the nuances that explain this business, no question arises about America’s openness to imports of grain and grain-based foods. Detailed compilations just issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicate that imports of grain milled products, which are mainly wheat flour, have grown fastest of any of the grain categories. The total value of such imports in 2013 was $1,374 million, which was an amazing five times the value just before the end of the last century. Wheat and wheat products alone showed a fourfold expansion in the same period, reaching a total of $1,563 million. The same growth pace ruled for all grain and grain product imports in the period between 1999 and 2013.

Even as trade in food and agricultural products has accelerated in recent years, it is grain foods and especially those based on wheat that have led the way. Albeit a minimal number in the total American food market, awareness of where growth at this impressive rate occurs is essential to responsible management of American milling.