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Published May 03, 2010, 03:44 PM

US export numbers have decreased greatly since 1980

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Between 1980 and 2009, the world production of corn, wheat and soybeans grew by 86 percent, increasing from 926 million to 1.73 billion metric tons. During that same period, the world population grew from 4.5 billion people to 6.8 billion, an increase of 51 percent. On average, the world production of the three crops grew at a rate 40 percent faster than population.

By: Daryll E. Ray,

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Between 1980 and 2009, the world production of corn, wheat and soybeans grew by 86 percent, increasing from 926 million to 1.73 billion metric tons. During that same period, the world population grew from 4.5 billion people to 6.8 billion, an increase of 51 percent. On average, the world production of the three crops grew at a rate 40 percent faster than population.

World exports of corn, wheat and soybean complex grew from 218 million to 362 million metric tons during the 30-year period beginning in 1980, an increase of 66 percent as nations relied less and less on imports of these crops.

Numbers drop

As a result, the percentage of the world production of corn, wheat and soybeans that was exported as corn, wheat and soybean complex declined from 23.6 percent in 1980 to 20.9 percent in 2009. This occurred despite the significant increase in soybean exports to China that began in 1995. Without the Chinese imports of soybeans, the world export percentage would have dropped to 18.5 percent.

In the United States, the production of corn, wheat and soybeans grew from 289 million metric tons in 1980 to 486 million tons in 2009, an increase of 71 percent. This was a smaller rate of increase than the world’s 86 percent increase. Given the United States’ higher yield levels in 1980 compared with many parts of the world and its relatively fixed base of cropland, this is not an unexpected result.

Despite a concerted effort to increase the exports of grains and oilseeds, the U.S. exports of corn, wheat and soybean complex fell from 129 million to 122 million metric tons during the same 30-year period. This 5 percent drop in exports occurred during a period in which world exports of these same products increased by 66 percent.

The share of the 1980 U.S. corn, wheat and soybean crop that was exported as corn, wheat and soybean complex was 45.2 percent. The export share topped 50 percent twice (1983 and 1988). By 2009, the export share had dropped to 25 percent, representing a decline of 45 percent.

World needs

In the last two years, we have heard a lot about both the possibilities and the needs for increased exports of grains and oilseeds as a means of reducing world hunger. The numbers suggest that the greatest potential for reducing world hunger may come from domestic production in the developing world, with developed world exports providing insurance during times of localized crop failures.

As for the oft sold and seldom delivered promise of an export-driven prosperity for U.S. farmers, the numbers provide little hope. Domestic production in the world grew at a faster rate than the world’s population despite comments to the contrary. As a result, the world is less dependent upon U.S. exports in 2009 than it was in 1980.

Editor’s Note: Ray is director of the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center in Knoxville.

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