The geography of Uruguay makes the nation well-suited to pastoral agriculture, including raising cattle and sheep. As a result, much of the countryside (90 percent) is used for such agriculture. After experiencing a period of substantial growth in the 1990s, Uruguay's agricultural sector experienced a period of stagnation in the late 1990s. In 1996, the last year of significant growth, agricultural production grew by 8.6 percent. In 1997, agricultural production declined by 1.3 percent, and continued to decline, by 1 percent in 1998 and 8 percent in 1999. These declines resulted from increased competition in foreign markets and contractions in the economies of Uruguay's main trade partners, Argentina and Brazil. In 1998, the total value of agricultural exports was $1.49 billion, but the nation also imported $458.2 million in agricultural goods. Employment in agriculture has remained relatively constant since the mid-1990s, at approximately 50,000.
While the overall agricultural sector has been stagnant, crop production has increased. After 2 years of decline, in 1999 crop harvests grew by 10.5 percent and total output was 2.4 million tons. The main food crops are rice, wheat, corn, potatoes, barley, sugarcane, and soybeans. Production of rice in 1999 was 1.3 million tons, wheat 377,200 tons, and corn 242,500 tons. Barley harvests dropped significantly as a result of reduced demand, falling from 340,000 tons in 1996 to 111,000 in 1999.
Total livestock exports were worth US$1 billion in 2000. The primary livestock products are beef, veal, horse, chicken, duck, goose, lamb, pork, and turkey. There were 10.5 million head of cattle in Uruguay in 1999, and 14.4 million sheep. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 1999 led several nations to ban the import of Uruguayan beef and lamb, but efforts to eradicate the disease were successful and in 2000 there were record exports. Beef, the main livestock export, accounted for 58.6 percent of exports in 2000, followed by lamb (4.12 percent) and horsemeat (1.4 percent). Mixed meat byproducts accounted for 30.8 percent of exports. Israel was the number-one market for Uruguayan beef, taking 25.09 percent of exports, although the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) countries—the United States, Canada and Mexico—were the main overall market with 33.4 percent of exports. MERCOSUR accounted for 16 percent of livestock exports and the EU 10.8 percent.
The fishing sector employs about 12,000 people. Uruguay has substantial stocks of a variety of fish species, but fishing accounts for only 0.1 percent of GDP. Pollution from Uruguayan ports, such as the 1997 oil spill by the Argentine ship San Jorge off the coastal resort of Punta del Este, has significantly impacted fish stocks. This spill affected 20 miles of Uruguayan coastline and did significant damage to a variety of species ranging from sea lions to croaker. Currently, hake accounts for about 70 percent of catches, followed by croaker (14 percent) and striped weakfish (5 percent). There are increasing efforts to develop the industry to catch deep-water species such as swordfish, squid, and anchovy. In 1998, swordfish catches surpassed 930 tons and the nation exceeded its quota under international fishing regulations. The United States is the major destination for fish exports.