Wednesday, June 25, 2008

US Corn Consumption

I have marveled previously about how much corn the US consumes. In 2007 we produced 13 million bushels of corn, exported 2.45 million and consumed 10.5 million. That works out to over 5 lbs of consumption per person per day!

Considering that no one ate anywhere near that much corn directly, where exactly did it all go?

Almost 60% went to animal feed. While I don't know how it breaks down in terms of which animals it goes to, I did find that it takes 7 pounds of corn to produce 1 pound of beef, 6.5 pounds of corn to produce 1 pound of pork, and 2.6 pounds of corn to produce 1 pound of chicken. Besides meat, it is also used to feed cows to produce milk. If you ate a Quarter Pounder for lunch and another for dinner, that would take 3.5 lbs of corn to produce and slightly more than the 3.15 lbs of corn that went to feed animals daily per person in the US.

Another almost 30% goes to make ethanol. Thanks to over $3.5 billion in ethanol subsidies, 1.5 lbs of corn per person per day were used to make 6.5 billion gallons of fuel of dubious economic and environmental value.

Combining the celebrity of sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, with the forgotten stepchildren of sweeteners: glucose and dextrose, together they accounted for 7% of consumption or a little more than 3/8ths of a pound per person a day. If you bought something sweet that was cheap, odds are it used corn sweeteners.

The next 2.6% went to starch, which apparently is used in paper, textiles, adhesives, plastics, baked goods, condiments, candies, soups and mixes.

Finally we get to what most people think of as corn, and yet its consumption isn't even large enough to warrant its own category. Instead it is unceremoniously lumped in with the catch all "other products". This is where your breakfast cereals, snack chips, tortillas and other corn foods show up. This was 1.8% of consumption and just .1 pound (1.6 oz) per day.

Last but not least, beverage alcohol accounted for 1.3% of consumption. Corn is used to make Bourbon, other types of whiskey and who knows what other inebriating drinks I am unaware of.

How amazing is it that we consume, on average, almost 2,000 pounds of corn a year and almost none of that looks anything like how it looks on the cob? Even after finding all of these statistics, I am still clueless as to how much corn is consumed by Americans with kernels intact.

via USDA Feed Grains Database: Yearbook Tables 4 & 31 and Iowa Corn

Update: Jeremy raises a good point about exports of meat. If the corn is being used to raise livestock that are then exported and consumed in another country this really shouldn't be counted against US consumption. But, it is really net exports that matter, for if we import the same amount of meat that we export then it doesn't really affect the numbers.

It looks like the US imports more beef than it exports with 1.431 billion pounds of export and 3.052 billion pounds of import. On the other hand, the US exports 2.4 million tonnes of chicken (via FAO Stat) and imports just 19,000 tonnes. Poultry exports account for 16% of production. Another source puts it at similar numbers. I don't know how much corn is going to raise chickens, but if you assume 50% of feed is going there, and 16% get exported, that means 8% of feed or around 500 mil bushels is not really US consumption.

This tweaks the numbers, but doesn't really change the analysis much. Feed is still the largest source of consumption, and US consumption per capita is still over 5 lbs a day.


Audacious Epigone said...

So am I right in asserting that the best way to reduce US corn consumption is to become a vegetarian?

Fat Knowledge said...


Yes I think that is correct.

I do not know the breakdown of where corn feed goes, but if you assume that it all went to chicken, then the 341 billion pounds (6.1 billion bushels) of corn became 131 billion pounds of chicken. Assuming a pound of chicken has the same calories as a pound of corn (maybe not a good assumption as chicken has fat which is more caloricly dense than carbohydrates, but it also has more water which has 0 calories), and that it takes 2.6 lbs of corn to make 1 lb of chicken, then you could get rid of 72% of corn feed by eating corn directly.

This would save 4.4 billion bushels of corn which is more than the amount of ethanol or any other use of corn. Beef and hogs have lower conversion rates so savings would be even greater.

Vegetarians still drink milk which also uses corn feed, so you could reduce it even more by going vegan. Not sure how much corn goes towards milk, or what the conversion rate is.

But, I think you could make the case that the US going completely vegetarian would save more corn than stopping corn ethanol production.

Audacious Epigone said...

Interesting. Thanks for working those numbers.

Rebelfish said...

Or less corn would be grown if people switched to grass-fed cows and whatever chickens normally eat (actually aren't corn and seeds their normal diet?). But Americans seem to prefer the corn-fed taste over grass-fed anyway.

I also find it amusing that, since "corn" is only a small component of "other", we use more corn to make booze than to eat as corn.

Rebelfish said...

Chicken has 500 Cal per pound of raw meat. Beef has 640 Cal. Corn has an incredible 1600 Cal.

Once beef is cooked, its Caloric value goes up to 1200, and roasted chicken has 1300 Cal/lb.

So if the 7, 6.5, and 2.6 are for raw meat, corn comes out way ahead. And corn, by the pound, has more calories than the meats even when cooked! Must be all those carbs.

Fat Knowledge said...


Good point on corn vs. booze, I think you are right.

Thanks for the numbers on calories. I think cooked meat is more caloric by the pound because the cooking gets rid of non-caloric water and what you are left with is a denser food item. This is opposed to potatoes where cooking actually makes the carbohydrates more available for digestion and does add new calories to the mix.

The other thing when comparing corn with meat is the protein content. To get the same amount of protein you might need to eat something like soy rather than corn.

I figure that some vegetarian has already run the numbers on how much corn could be saved by cutting out meat, so I don't want to spend the time to reinvent the wheel, but I am also too lazy to try and track it down right now. :)

JeremyGood said...

You also have to consider how much meat is exported from the U.S. The U.S. Meat Export Federation reports that the U.S. exports over 70,000 metric tons (about $250 million worth) of beef products per month, and those numbers are up over 30% from last year. Note that chicken, pork etc are not included in those statistics.

If we assume that your corn consumption statistics include feed for U.S. animals whose meat is exported, then it would significantly reduce the actual consumption per person. That is, the U.S. consumes a lot of corn to help feed the world.

So becoming a vegan may make less of a dent than you expected. The Worldwatch Institute posted this article on worldwide meat consumption TEN YEARS AGO. At that time, the U.S. definitely led the world's meat consumption at 123kg annually per person, but there were six other countries over 60kg (Germany, Italy, Argentina, UK, Brazil, New Zealand). It's likely that China has since joined the list. Did you know there were two chickens on earth for every person in 1998?

Fat Knowledge said...


Good point on the exports, thanks for pointing that out. See the update on my post.

As for the chickens, I wasn't aware of that exact statistic, but I did know that there are 9 billion chickens born each year in the US.

JeremyGood said...

Wow, good analysis of my comment. Makes you wonder why we import and export so much, wouldn't it be cheaper and easier to just consume it here instead of sending it to people who are sending it back to us? I'm sure there's some good political-economic reason for it.

Just to belabor the point even more, it's possible and probably likely that countries that we import meat from don't use as more corn for feed as we do.

This is making me hungry. Time to eat another 12 ears of corn.

Fat Knowledge said...

Makes you wonder why we import and export so much, wouldn't it be cheaper and easier to just consume it here instead of sending it to people who are sending it back to us?

I think one site I looked at mentioned that there was difference in quality. That we export high quality beef and import lower quality. They also said for chicken that American's like white meat, so we export dark meat and import the white.

Just to belabor the point even more, it's possible and probably likely that countries that we import meat from don't use as more corn for feed as we do.

That is true. We could be importing grass fed Brazilian beef while exporting the corn feed stuff. But, exports are just 5% of total production, so I don't think it impacts it that much. Well that and I am way too lazy to even think about tracking down the source of the feed of the beef we are importing. :)

Anonymous said...

Hey Fat Knowledge-- Could you give me a source for your information? Currently writing an economics research paper on grain/corn consumption and the effects of increased meat exports/consumption on that fact. Thanks :)

Fat Knowledge said...

Hi ConfusedConvert,

The data was in the "via" line (above the update), but it appears that some of the links are dead now. Maybe you can start there and find new versions of the data they had released.

Good luck on the economics paper.

Anonymous said...

shouldn't your numbers be in billions?

Fat Knowledge said...


No, the total is 10.488 billion which is 10,488 million as stated. Maybe you are European and not used to the way Americans use commas and periods (and really I am not sure who decided to use them differently to begin with, seems stupid to me).

AlabamaPatriot1776 said...

Correct Fat Knowledge. It is billions. Nebraska alone produces over 1.5 billion bushels of corn a year.

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