The Story of China's Corny Love Affair

You’ve probably heard about America’s love affair with corn. We’re the number one producer of the agricultural hero, whose versatile structure goes into everything from ketchup, to coca-cola, to your car’s fuel. But this week, we’re traveling 7,000 miles from the expansive corn fields of the midwest to a more unlikely corn consumer: China. This week on the story of things, we take a look at China’s starchy dilemma—to import, or not to import?


Corn doesn’t spring to mind if you think about Chinese staples. And while rice still takes the cake for human consumption, corn and corn products are rapidly becoming a cornerstone of Chinese agriculture and livestock. In the past 25 years, a burgeoning middle class has caused corn consumption in China to explode by 125%— but only 10% of corn in China is consumed by humans. 60% is consumed by animals, while 30% is used to create alcohol, chemicals, and sugars.

But where is China getting all its corn?

Until 2013, China was importing 94% of America’s exported corn—more than 5 million metric tons per year. But almost overnight, the country closed its borders to a new type of GMO corn that Syngenta had grown—well, enough of to feed a country. That led to a drastic oversupply of corn in the U.S., plummeting corn prices, and some angry farmers.

Now things might be changing. U.S. corn, because of its GMO-influenced efficiency, is just more consistent than Chinese corn. Chinese officials have gone as far as attempting to steal thousands of Monsanto seeds, so corn growers can continue to grow domestically [1].

Water shortages, a lack of usable farmland, and an ever-increasing demand for corn-fed products prompted China to begin accepting corn from the U.S. last month. Its corn consumption is set to overtake production early next year, which means the U.S. is set to provide it—up to 22 million metric tons per year by 2023.

Agrichem companies like DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta have got corn production down to… Well, a science. And Chinese producers just haven’t been able to replicate those yields. As the growing consumer class clamors for more, the country is having to reconsider its closed borders.

The relationship between the U.S. and China is about to get a lot cornier.

(For a really interesting read on China's attempts to steal American corn, check out this article from The New Republic.)



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