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Corn is by far the largest component of global coarse-grain trade, accounting for about three-quarters of total volume in recent years. (Coarse grains make up a common trade category that includes corn, sorghum, barley, oats, and rye.) Most of the corn that is traded is used for feed; smaller amounts are traded for industrial and food uses. Processed-corn products and byproducts--including corn meal, flour, sweeteners, and corn gluten feed--are also traded, but are not included in this discussion of corn trade.

U.S. Corn Trade

The United States is the world's largest producer and exporter of corn. Corn grain exports represent a significant source of demand for U.S. producers and make the largest net contribution to the U.S. agricultural trade balance of all the agricultural commodities, indicating the importance of corn exports to the U.S. economy. On average, corn grain (excluding popcorn or sweet corn) accounted for approximately 11 percent of all U.S. agricultural exports by value during the 1990s. In 2008, because of record exports of corn and other feed grains, that share grew to over 12 percent of the U.S agricultural export value.

The U.S. share of world corn exports averaged 60 percent during 2003/04-2007/08 (the international trade year is October-September. U.S. corn exports soared in the 1970s from 13 million metric tons at the start of the decade to a record 62 million in 1979/80. The growth was due to strong demand in Russia as well as in Japan, Western and Eastern Europe, and developing countries. Over the next few years, U.S. corn exports dropped, bottoming out at 31 million metric tons in 1985/86, because of poor global economic growth, expansion of the European Union (EU), and U.S. government support for domestic corn prices.

In the second half of the 1980s, U.S. exports rebounded, reaching 60 million metric tons in 1989/90 because of large domestic supplies and more competitive prices as the government reduced commodity loan rates. Exports in the early 1990s declined again because of external factors, notably the breakup of the former Soviet Union and rising Chinese corn exports.

As biofuel production develops and expands, it will continue to put pressure on U.S. corn and other feed grain production, exports, livestock feeding, and other domestic uses. The United States experienced record demand and corn production during 2007/08 that pushed U.S corn exports to 61 million metric tons. However, a slowing world economy and reduced demand for corn are projected to dampen corn exports in the near future. Nonetheless, global population increases and consumer demand for meat products will continue to support expanding feed grain exports in the long term.

World Corn Trade

Although the United States dominates world corn trade, exports account for a relatively small portion of demand for U.S. corn--about 15 percent. This low demand for exports means that corn prices are largely determined by supply-and-demand relationships in the U.S. market, and the rest of the world must adjust to prevailing U.S. prices. The high influence of U.S. corn supply makes world corn trade and prices dependent on weather in the U.S. Corn Belt. Because Argentina, the second-largest corn exporter in most years, is in the Southern Hemisphere, Argentine farmers plant their corn after discovering the size of the U.S. crop, thereby providing a quick, market-oriented supply response to short U.S. crops. Several countries--including Brazil, Ukraine, Romania, and South Africa--have had significant corn exports when crops were large or international prices, attractive.

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China has been a significant source of uncertainty in world corn trade, swinging from being the second-largest exporter in some years to occasionally importing significant quantities. China's corn exports are largely a function of government export subsidies and tax rebates, because corn prices in China are mostly higher than those in the world market. Large corn stocks are expensive for the government to maintain, and Chinese corn export policy has fluctuated with little relationship to the country's production, making China's corn trade difficult to predict.

World corn trade peaked in 1980/81, with large imports by the Soviet Union and Europe. Since then, corn imports by EU countries have declined steadily as the Common Agricultural Policy limited grain imports and EU membership expanded. For example, as  countries like as Hungary joined the EU, their corn shipments that previously went to the rest of the world were diverted to the EU. At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union's political and economic reforms led to a liquidation of livestock herds and a drop in corn imports in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. During the same time period, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan continued to increase corn imports to support increasing meat production and consumption.

Developing countries worldwide have continued to increase corn imports fairly steadily since 1980. This growth in developing-country imports has propelled global corn trade above 70 million metric tons each year since 1999/2000. Projections for U.S. corn exports are in USDA's Agricultural Baseline Projections, which provides 10-year projections for the U.S. and world agricultural sector for selected commodities.

Japan is the world's largest corn importer by far. While producing almost no coarse grains, Japan is a very large meat producer, so the country is a steady buyer of corn, with attention to quality. In recent years, Japanese imports of corn for livestock feed have stagnated, while imports for industrial use and starch manufacturing have increased. South Korea is the second-largest importer of corn in the world. South Korea is a price-conscious buyer, willing to switch to feed wheat or other coarse grains, and ready to buy corn from the cheapest source. Mexico is a growing importer. While a large corn producer, Mexico processes much of its production of white corn into human food products, but has turned to imported yellow corn and sorghum for livestock feed to support increased meat production.

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Foreign demand depends not only on importing countries' demand for feed ingredients but also on those countries' internal policy changes that adjust prices and/or the availability of competing products. Coarse grains can often substitute for each other in feed use. Corn competes with other feed grains, as well as with wheat and nongrain feedstuffs such as cassava. Oilseed meal and other protein sources serve mostly as complements to grains, but can also be substitutes, especially those protein meals with low-protein content. Flexibility in many markets, however, is limited by the types of animals fed, the desire to maintain stable rations, local preferences, and import tariffs and laws. Importers not only substitute among grains, but may switch suppliers of the same grain based on price, quality, availability, credit, or other trade services. Agricultural tariff schedules for World Trade Organization (WTO) member countries report the current maximum permissible duties.

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Last updated: Thursday, October 16, 2014

For more information contact: Thomas Capehart

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