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The US Is the World's Largest Producer of Corn, So Why Are We Importing More?

Because of its reliance on genetically modified crops, the world's largest producer of corn has been forced to import organic, non-GMO corn from other countries.
Photo via Flickr user calliope

With more than 90 million acres of our nation set aside for corn farming, the US leads worldwide corn production by a pretty hefty margin. China is hardly a close second, but it still produces about 215 million tons of corn each year (compared to our 360 million tons). Brazil is a distant third at 75 million tons.

But red-blooded Americans aren't eating that corn. Or at least not directly.

The vast majority of corn produced in the US becomes animal feed, fueling our nation's other great food industry: meat. Much of the rest of it is processed into sweeteners, corn oil, and industrial products like ethanol fuel. Very, very little of it actually makes it to your table as intact ears.

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Compounding that is the fact that almost all of the corn raised in the US is genetically modified, and GMO-wary consumers want none of that in their tortillas.

Thus, the world's largest producer of corn has been forced to import organic, non-GMO corn from other countries—an agricultural irony that not only touches upon our growing mistrust of modified crops, but our reliance on animal protein.

According to a report released Wednesday by the Organic Trade Association and Pennsylvania State University, Romania is now the number-one supplier of organic corn for the US, with Turkey, the Netherlands, and Canada following it. Imports of Romanian corn rose to $11.6 million in 2014 (compared to $545,000 in 2013).

"This important study is a 'Help Wanted' message for American farmers," said Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the OTA, in a press release. "It shows substantial missed opportunities for the US farmer by not growing organic—whether to meet the demand outside the US or to keep up with the robust domestic demand for organic."

The story is the same for American soy, which also ends up in more animal troughs than human mouths. Because of that, the US imported $73.8 million worth of soy from India last year.

Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the USDA's National Organic Program, told Bloomberg that the US market could easily meet the demand for organic and non-GMO corn and soy, but the incentives aren't there. "A requirement that all organic farms be free of non-organic seeds and chemicals for three years means farmers give up profit before gaining any price benefit," Bloomberg notes. "Recent high prices that fed record farm profits also gave growers less reason to switch."

With those kinds of limitations and few immediate enticements to meet the demand for non-GMO crops, switching doesn't seem like an option for most farmers anytime soon.