Where the Corn Goes

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of corn, by far.

So what we do with all that corn?  The answer will likely surprise folks who are used to the mantra of industrial agriculture:  “We feed the world.”

39% of the corn grown in the U.S. is used for animal feed.  30% is used for to make ethanol.  11% is used to make Dried Distillers Grains With Solubles (DDGS) (essentially it is combined with the waste from ethanol production to produce industrial animal feed).  7% falls into the “other” category–largely the production of byproducts like high fructose corn syrup.  7% of U.S. corn production is exported.

There’s not much on that list that qualifies as food.  For soybeans, the crop most often rotated with corn, the story is much the same.

Most folks probably don’t realize that the corn grown in the U.S. is inedible by humans, unless processed beyond recognition as corn.    Our corn isn’t being raised to feed us (or “the world”). It’s being raised to make ethanol and to fatten animals in feed lots and CAFOs (which in turn are eaten by consumers here or abroad).  So while it may be true that commodity agribusiness is in some sense “feeding the world,” it isn’t true in the way most would assume and it increasingly isn’t true at all.

It wasn’t very long ago that the U.S. was the world’s largest exporter of corn.  But as of last year U.S. corn exports fell to their lowest level since 1970 and Brazil and Argentina are now the world’s top corn exporters. Ethanol production is the primary reason for the decline in U.S. corn exports.

So who is importing corn?  Japan is the biggest importer now, but the USDA projects that over the next ten years China and Mexico will become the world’s biggest importers.  Chinese imports are skyrocketing, up over 20% already this year over last year and forecasters say Mexico will double the amount of corn it imports over the next ten years.

Over 80% of the world lives in “developing” countries.  As countries “develop,” their appetite for meat increases, and so, therefore, does their appetite for feed grains.

I’ve blogged before about the exploding demand in China for chickens.  With hogs the story is even more dramatic.  China is on course to be a permanent and very large importer of feed grains to feed its burgeoning meat animal industry.  A few months ago a Chinese company purchased U.S. industrial pork giant Smithfield Foods in a whopping (and record-breaking) $7 billion deal.  China is now the largest hog producer in the world. The amount of hogs added by China in just the last three years is more than the total amount of hogs in the U.S. today.

Those of us who farm organically are often told, “Organic agriculture can’t feed the world.”  I like to respond that it may well be that only organic agriculture can feed the world.  But as we look at what’s being done with all the genetically-modified corn being grown by industrial chemical-based agribusinesses, a fair question in response might be, “And just how is industrial agriculture doing that?”