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:
|Segment||Bushels Used (millions)||% of Usage (2020)|
|Ethanol (Animal Feed)||1,075||7.4%|
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.
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.
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.
Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years
The Western U.S. is no stranger to droughts. But this year’s is one of the worst yet. Here’s a historical look at U.S. droughts since 1999.
Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years
The Western U.S. is experiencing one of the worst recorded droughts in the last 20 years.
Temperatures from California to the Dakotas are currently hovering around 9-12°F above average—but how bad is the situation compared to past years?
This animated map by reddit user /NothingAbnormalHere provides a historical look at droughts in the U.S. since 1999, using data and graphics from the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM).
What is the U.S. Drought Monitor?
Over the last two decades, the USDM has been tracking, measuring, and comparing droughts across America.
While droughts can be difficult to classify and standardize, there are various factors that can be used to gauge when a region is experiencing drought. These include measurements of snowpack levels, soil moisture, and recent precipitation.
To track these conditions (and make sense of them), the USDM synthesizes data from a plethora of meteorological sources, including the Palmer Drought Severity Index and the Standardized Precipitation Index.
From there, conditions are broken down into categories, ranging from D0 (abnormally dry) to D4 (Exceptional Drought). A map is released each week that shows which states are experiencing drought, and to what degree.
Where Are The Most Drought-Prone Areas?
According to a map created by climatologist Becky Bolinger (which is published on Drought.gov), Arizona and Nevada are the most historically drought-prone states—the two have experienced drought more than 50% of the time tracked by the USDM.
California is high on the list as well, with the state experiencing drought at least 40% of the time.
As the historical data shows, the West is no stranger to droughts. However, this year’s drought has become particularly worrisome because of its intensity and breadth.
Right now, more than a quarter of the West is experiencing a D4 level drought—a new record. To help put things into perspective, here’s a look at how much overall land area in the West has been in drought, since 2000:
When a region is experiencing a D4 drought, possible impacts include:
- Water Scarcity
Lower reservoirs, combined with decreased snowpack lead to water shortages.
- Crop losses
Water shortages mean less water for fields, which can lead to acres of fallow (unused) farmland.
Dry conditions and lack of moisture increase the risk of wildfires.
Is This the New Norm?
This record-breaking drought is wreaking havoc across the West. In California, reservoirs have about half as much water as they usually do, and crop failures are happening across Colorado.
The worst part? Some experts believe that this could be the new normal if human-driven climate change continues to increase average temperatures across the globe.
Cocoa: A Bittersweet Supply Chain
The cocoa supply chain is a bittersweet one. While chocolate is a beloved sweet treat globally, many cocoa farmers are living a bitter reality.
Cocoa: A Bittersweet Supply Chain
From bean to bar, the cocoa supply chain is a bittersweet one. While the end product is something most of us enjoy, this also comes with a human cost.
Based on how much cocoa comes from West Africa, it’s likely that most of the chocolates we eat have a little bit of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana in them. The $130B chocolate industry relies on cocoa farming for supply of chocolate’s key ingredient. Yet, many cocoa farmers make less than $1/day.
The above graphic maps the major trade flows of cocoa and allows us to dive deeper into its global supply chain.
From Bean to Bar: Stages in the Cocoa Supply Chain
Cocoa beans go through a number of stages before being used in chocolate products.
- Harvesting, Fermenting, and Drying
First, farmers harvest cocoa beans from pods on cacao plants. Next, they are fermented in heaps and covered with banana leaves. Farmers then dry and package the cocoa beans for domestic transportation.
- Domestic Transportation, Cleaning, and Exporting
Domestic transporters carry packaged cocoa beans to either cleaning warehouses or processing factories. Cocoa beans are cleaned and prepared for exports to the chocolate production hubs of the world.
- Processing and Chocolate Production
Processing companies winnow, roast, and grind cocoa beans and then convert them into cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, or cocoa cakes—which are mixed with other ingredients like sugar and milk to produce chocolate products.
Cocoa farming and trade are at the roots of the chocolate industry, and the consistent supply of cocoa plays a critical role in providing us with reasonably-priced chocolate.
So where exactly does all this cocoa come from?
The Key Nations in Cocoa’s Global Supply Chain
Growing cocoa has specific temperature, water, and humidity requirements. As a result, the equatorial regions of Africa, Central and South America, and Asia are optimal for cocoa farming.
These regions host the biggest cocoa exporters by value.
|Rank (2019)||Exporting Country||Value (US$, millions)|
|1||Côte d’Ivoire 🇨🇮||$3,575|
Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are responsible for 70% of global cocoa production, and cocoa exports play a huge role in their economies. Although the majority of exporters come from equatorial regions, Belgium stands out in fifth place.
On the other hand, most of the top importers are in Europe—the Netherlands and Germany being the top two.
|Rank (2019)||Importing Country||Value (US$, millions)|
In third place, the U.S. primarily sources its cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Ecuador. Mars, Hershey, Cargill, and Blommer—some of the world’s biggest chocolate manufacturers and processors—are headquartered in the U.S.
Finally, it comes as no surprise that the biggest importers of cocoa beans are among the biggest chocolate exporters.
|Rank (2019)||Country||Value of Chocolate Exports
Not only is the Netherlands the biggest importer of beans, but it’s also the biggest processor—grinding 600,000 tons annually—and the fourth largest exporter of chocolate products.
Belgium is another key nation in the supply chain, importing cocoa beans from producing countries and exporting them across Europe. It’s also home to the world’s largest chocolate factory, supporting its annual chocolate exports worth $3.1 billion.
Breaking Down the Cocoa Supply Chain: Who Gets What
Without farmers, both the cocoa and chocolate industries are likely to suffer from shortages, with domino effects on higher overall costs. Yet, they have little ability to influence prices at present.
Farmers are among the lowest earners from a tonne of sold cocoa—accounting for just 6.6% of the value of the final sale.
Low incomes also translate into numerous other issues associated with cocoa farming.
The Bitter Side of Cocoa Farming
The World Bank has established the threshold for extreme poverty at $1.90/day. Cocoa farmers in Ghana make $1/day, while those in Côte d’Ivoire make around $0.78/day—both significantly below the extreme poverty line.
Farmers are often unable to bear the costs of cocoa farming as a result of low incomes. In turn, they employ children, who miss out on education, are exposed to hazardous working conditions, and get paid little or no wages.
|Country||Cocoa Farmers Making $1/day or less||Children in Cocoa Agriculture|
|Côte d’Ivoire 🇨🇮||600,000||891,500|
To make matters worse, cocoa farming is primarily responsible for deforestation and illegal farming in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana—adding environmental issues to the mix.
These interconnected problems call for action, so what is being done to fight them?
Combating Cocoa’s Concerns
Mars, Nestlé, and Hershey—some of the world’s biggest chocolate manufacturers—have made several pledges to eradicate child labor in cocoa farming over the last two decades, but haven’t reached their targets.
In addition, organizations such as UTZ Certified, Rainforest Alliance, and Fairtrade are working to increase traceability in the supply chain by selling ‘certified cocoa’, sourced from farms that prohibit child labor.
More recently, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana announced a fixed premium of US$400/tonne on cocoa futures, aiming to improve farmer livelihoods by creating a union for cocoa, also known colloquially as the “COPEC” for the industry.
While these initiatives have had some positive impacts, more still needs to be done to successfully eradicate large-scale child labor and poverty of those involved in cocoa’s bittersweet supply chain.
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