The Uses of Corn: Industries Affected by High Corn Prices
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The Uses of Corn: Industries Affected by High Corn Prices

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The uses of corn

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Corn Beyond the Cob

Corn or maize is the second most-produced crop in the world, and it’s more than just a staple in our diets.

From the sweetener in our coffees to the ethanol that powers our vehicles, corn has hundreds of uses. Consequently, high corn prices have a domino effect that can affect many supply chains and possibly even increase the cost of our weekly groceries, especially if they include tortilla chips.

This infographic uses data from the National Corn Growers Association to break down U.S. corn use by segment in 2020, and the products that a bushel of corn can produce.

The Uses of Corn in the U.S.

While corn on the cob is quite popular, not all corn is sweet. There are five major types of corn grown around the world, and each one differs in taste and uses. Of these, yellow dent corn or field corn accounts for the majority of commercial U.S. production.

Here’s a breakdown of U.S. corn usage in 2020:

SegmentBushels Used (millions)% of Usage (2020)
Feed5,65038.7%
Ethanol (Fuel)3,87526.6%
Exports2,55017.5%
Ethanol (Animal Feed)1,0757.4%
Sweeteners7805.3%
Starch2301.6%
Cereal/Other2151.5%
Beverages/Alcohol1701.2%
Seeds300.2%
Total14,575100%

Corn accounts for more than 96% of U.S. feed grain use and production. As a result, animal feed makes up nearly 40% of the country’s corn usage. This is because corn is a rich source of carbohydrates, and in combination with protein from soybeans, it can make for an effective diet for livestock.

In the United States, federal mandates require vehicles to use a blend of gasoline and biofuels like ethanol—94% of which is produced from the starch in corn grain. Therefore, a large portion of U.S. corn goes into ethanol production.

Interestingly, the ethanol distillation process produces a co-product known as dried distillers grain, which serves as low-cost, protein-rich animal feed for livestock. On average, the U.S. ethanol industry produces around 90,000 tons of distillers grains each week.

Animal feed and ethanol production collectively make up around 73% of U.S. corn usage. Other uses of corn include the production of sweeteners, starch, cereal, and alcoholic beverages like whiskey.

Breaking Down U.S. Corn Exports

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer and exporter of corn and accounted for roughly 36% of exports in 2020.

Up until 2019, the majority of U.S. corn exports went to Mexico, Japan, and Colombia. China wasn’t among the top 10 destinations, but this changed in 2020.

u.s. corn exports

Between January 2020 and 2021, U.S. corn exports to China increased exponentially, reaching an all-time high in December. China’s massive import appetite is because of a shortage of domestic supplies amid rising demand for feed from its recovering hog-herd, which was hit by the African swine fever in 2018.

Consequently, China became the third-largest importer of U.S. corn in 2020 after Mexico and Brazil. What’s more, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that China’s corn imports in 2021 will be much higher than 2020 levels, and the majority of those will be sourced from the United States.

The Corn Price Boom

In addition to a drought-induced yield cut in Brazil, rising demand from China has driven corn prices to their highest level in the last eight years.

price of corn

Since the beginning of 2020, corn prices have increased 68% and stand at around $6.50 per bushel as of May 19th.

The rise in corn prices is likely to affect several industries and could translate into higher prices for our groceries, including cereals, taco shells, and corn syrups. Additionally, it could also push up the price of gas due to its key role in ethanol production.

Corn, in a Bushel

In a world where commodities like corn are often taken for granted, it’s important to think about how valuable it can be.

A single bushel of corn can provide 33 lbs of sweetener, 31.5 lbs of starch, or 22.4 lbs of polymers. It’s also enough to produce around 3 gallons of ethanol fuel and 16 lbs of distillers dried grains for animal feed.

The uses of corn go far beyond the cob, and just like other raw materials, it supports many industries that make modern life possible.

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Agriculture

What are the Most Produced Cash Crops in Africa?

From wheat to cassavas, also known as yuca, here are the top cash crops in Africa and their share of global production.

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Cash Crops

What are the Most Produced Cash Crops in Africa?

Agriculture makes up nearly 20% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s economy—a higher percentage than any other region worldwide.

From Nigeria to the fertile land across the East African Rift Valley, the continent is home to 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land.

Given the massive role of agriculture across the region, this infographic from Zainab Ayodimeji shows the most produced cash crops in Africa and their share of total global production.

The Top 20 Cash Crops in Africa

Cash crops, such as coffee or rice, are crops that are produced for a salable market.

With data from the Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSTAT), here are the most produced cash crops in Africa:

Cash Crop
Tonnes Produced 2019
% of World Production
Cassava192.1M63%
Sugar cane97.3M5%
Maize81.9M7%
Yams72.4M97%
Rice, paddy38.8M5%
Sorghum28.6M49%
Rice, paddy (rice milled equivalent)
25.9M5%
Sweet potatoes27.9M30%
Wheat26.9M4%
Plantains26.7M64%
Potatoes26.5M7%
Fresh vegetables22.0M7%
Oil palm fruit21.9M5%
Tomatoes21.7M12%
Bananas21.5M18%
Groundnuts, with shell16.6M34%
Sugar beet14.3M5%
Onions, dry13.9M14%
Millet13.7M48%
Oranges9.8M12%

Cassava, also referred to as yuca, is the most produced cash crop by a wide margin. With nearly 200 million tonnes of it produced annually, Africa’s production of cassava makes up a majority (63%) of the global total.

While cassavas are not well known in the Western world, they feed 800 million people globally. Cassavas are an essential root vegetable that has similar uses to potatoes.

Sugar cane, maize, and yams are also significant cash crops.

Notably, Africa’s yam production is 97% of the global total. West Africa is known as the “yam belt,” covering Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, and Côte d’Ivoire. With over 60 million people across the yam belt directly or indirectly involved in its production, yam cultivation is an important component of the region’s economic vitality.

Agriculture Composition of GDP, by Region

While agriculture plays a significant role in Africa’s GDP, what role does it play across other regions around the world?

Agriculture portion of GDP, by global region

Like Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture is a major part of South Asia’s economy. India produces nearly 24% of rice around the world, while Bangladesh produces over 7% of total global production. Meanwhile, over 14% of the global wheat supply is also produced by India.

On the other hand, agriculture makes up just 1% of North America’s GDP. The number of farms in the U.S. peaked in the 1930s and has sharply declined from almost 7 million to 2 million in 2020.

The Future of Africa’s Cash Crops

Despite Africa’s expansive agriculture sector, there remain bottlenecks to productivity.

In light of these challenges, several technological advances have the potential to improve farmers’ bottom lines. For instance, precision technology measures rainfall, soil information, and soil productivity. At the same time, remote sensing technology can provide information on weather and climate.

This, coupled with the majority of the world’s uncultivated arable land, presents a significant opportunity for cash crops going forward. By one estimate, cereal and grain production has the potential to increase threefold.

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Agriculture

Visualizing the World’s Loss of Forests Since the Ice-Age

How much has the world’s land use changed over the last 10,000 years, and how have forests been impacted?

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The World’s Loss of Forests Shareable

Visualizing The World’s Loss of Forests Since the Ice-Age

How much of Earth used to be covered by forests, and what portion is covered today?

The effects of deforestation on the climate are already being seen and felt, and these repercussions are expected to increase with time. That’s why more than 100 world leaders pledged to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 at the COP26 climate summit.

As today’s graphic using data from Our World in Data highlights, the world’s forests have been shrinking since the last ice age at an increasingly rapid pace.

Earth’s Surface Area: 10,000 Years Ago

To examine the deforestation situation properly, it helps to understand Earth’s total available surface area. After all, our world can feel massive when glancing at maps or globes. But of the roughly 51 billion hectares in total surface area on Earth, more than 70% is taken up by oceans.

What’s left is 14.9 billion hectares of land, not all of which is habitable. Here is how the land was allocated 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age and before the rise of human civilizations.

Uninhabitable land on Earth (10,000 years ago):

  • Barren land (19% or 2.8bn ha)—Includes deserts, salt flats, exposed rocks, and dunes
  • Glaciers (10% or 1.5bn ha)—The vast majority concentrated in Antarctica

Habitable land on Earth (10,000 years ago):

  • Forest (57% or 6bn ha)—Includes tropical, temperate, and boreal forests
  • Grassland (42% or 4.6bn ha)—Wild grassland and shrubs
  • Freshwater (1% or <510M ha)—Lakes and rivers

By 2018, forests had receded to just 4 billion hectares. What happened?

Forests and Grassland Recede for Agriculture

Once humans figured out how to cultivate plants and livestock for regular sources of food, they needed land to use.

For centuries, the loss of greenery was relatively slow. By 1800, the world had lost 700 million hectares each of forest and grassland, replaced by around 900 million hectares of land for grazing animals and 400 million hectares for crops.

But industrialization in the 1800s rapidly sped up the process.

Percentage of Habitable Land17001800190019502018
Forest52%50%48%44%38%
Grassland38%36%27%12%14%
Grazing6%9%16%31%31%
Crops3%4%8%12%15%
Freshwater1%1%1%1%1%
Urban<1%<1%<1%<1%1%

While half of Earth’s loss of forests occurred from 10,000 years ago to 1900, the other half or 1.1 billion hectares have been lost since 1900. Part of this loss, about 100 million hectares, has occurred in the more recent time period of 2000 to 2018.

The biggest culprit?

Though urban land use has rapidly grown, it still pales in comparison to the 31% of habitable land now being used for grazing livestock. Most of that land came at first from repurposed grasslands, but forests have also been cleared along the way.

Where Will Food Come From?

Countries pledging to stop deforestation have two major hurdles to solve: financial and survival.

Firstly, there are many companies, jobs, and economies that rely on producing and marketing goods made from forests, such as lumber.

But more importantly, the world’s rising use of land for crops and agriculture reflects our rapidly growing population. In 1900, the global population numbered just 1.6 billion people. By 2021, it had exceeded 7.9 billion, with hundreds of millions still affected by food shortages every day.

How do you feed so many without needing more land? Meat’s extremely large footprint makes prioritizing crops more attractive, and research into other solutions like lab-grown meat and grazing erosion prevention is ongoing.

As the effects of climate change become increasingly felt, it’s likely that countries, companies, and people will have to embrace many different solutions at once.

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