Even with drought, corn’s centrality accelerates

by Morton Sosland
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Before the drought and the heat devastated this year’s corn crop prospects, the season was on the verge of becoming the first in which the supply of a single crop, this grain, surpassed 1 billion tonnes. That prospect served as the basis for examining the different paths that have emerged in recent years for two grains — wheat and corn. For a world of 7 billion people, having a supply of corn totaling 1 billion tonnes is not just hugely important from the standpoint of food sufficiency but also marks a great milestone in the evolution of the modern-day food industry. Until the first decade of the 21st century, it hardly seemed realistic to anticipate that any grain would reach the billion-tonne mark in the near future. That corn was even close to doing that this near the start of the new century’s second decade reflects how that grain is seizing the stellar role that was elusive in the 20th century.

Forecasts that corn would reach this mark among grains began right after World War II. Then predictions were heard of expanding demand for meat and poultry not just in developed nations but in developing countries. As the basic grain used for feeding livestock and poultry, corn appeared destined to experience explosive growth. That was especially the case when comparisons were made with the primary food grain, wheat, where forecasts pointed to moderate use gains tied to population. The meat forecast stemmed from improving living standards that often meant consumption gains and spiraling growth in corn use.

Numbers comparing wheat and corn supply and consumption are particularly informative. As late as 2000-01, the global supply of wheat, at 787 million tonnes, still exceeded the global supply of corn, at 771 million. It was not until 2003-04 that the corn total first exceeded wheat, with respective aggregates of 755 million and 723 million. But in the past decade corn’s leadership has accelerated, to the point that with the supply near 1 billion tonnes, corn exceeds wheat by nearly 150 million tonnes.

Corn outrunning wheat is not due solely to expanded animal feeding. A great boost has been provided by the exploding industrial use, primarily for making ethanol in the United States. Global industrial use has climbed from 76 million tonnes at the start of the 21st century to the latest forecast for 2011-12 of 249 million tonnes. Guessing about the long-term future of corn as feedstock for fuel alcohol is fraught with difficulties related to both political and economic issues.

Even as the ethanol-related future may be questioned and even doubted based on debating about using grain to make an industrial product, feed utilization of corn is soaring. From 318 million tonnes in 1990-91 to 474 million at the start of the 21st century, feed use of corn grew faster than most other demand elements. That has continued apace in the new century, approaching 500 million currently, propelled on this abrupt upward path by feeding in China. According to the International Grains Council, which provides the data making this sort of analysis possible, China this year will, for the first time, use more corn for animal feed than America does. China is expected to feed 132 million tonnes of corn, compared with the US use of 112 million. American feed usage exceeded China’s by 20 to 40 million tonnes in earlier years of this century

This reversal in the Chinese and US feeding totals is one of the trends in global grain consumption that poses few difficulties about looking to the future. It is close to a given that China, enjoying amazing domestic economic expansion, will assure the expanding supply and use of corn that will satisfy the rapid shifts under way in what its people want to eat. Even with this summer’s setbacks, the forecast of corn’s domination first made more than half a century ago is being realized.

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