Cereal crops

The United States has long been a world leader in the production and exportation of cereal crops, especially corn. The ability of corn to withstand variations in climate and soils, combined with advances in hybridization, almost ensure the continued superiority of U.S. cereal production. Production of corn has risen from an average of 27 bushels per acre in 1900 to an expected average of 155 bushels per acre in 2008.

The United States is the top Corn productioncorn producer in the world and a major exporter of the crop. Of the corn crop for 2007, about 54 percent went for livestock feed; 27 percent was used to produce a huge assortment of food and industrial products, including sweeteners, corn oil, alcohol, and fuel ethanol; and about 19 percent was exported. The primary importer of U.S. corn is Japan, followed by Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan, Egypt, and others.Cereal crops

Major Grain Crops

The United States, the world’s largest exporter of wheat, was estimated in 2008 to produce 2.462 billion bushels. Although Wheat productionwheat is grown in virtually every state in the United States, its prime locus is the southern Great Plains area, including Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Colorado, where hard red winter wheat–which accounts for about 40 percent of the entire wheat crop–is grown. The United States grows more wheat than it uses, exporting about half of its yield, while using some for livestock feed and most of the remainder for flour. The domestic demand for wheat increased after 1970, leading to overproduction in 1990-1995, causing a drop in prices and a long period in which supply exceeded demand. In 2002, bad weather in other countries, and the opening of new export markets for the United States resulted in a slow increase of wheat production. The year 2006 was a record year for wheat production in the United States.

Barley Barley productionrepresents barely 3 to 4 percent of total crop acreage in the United States, which ranks as one of the five major barley producers in the world. The northern plains states and the Pacific Northwest are primary production areas of barley, which is exported primarily to Saudi Arabia, Japan, and republics of the former Soviet Union. Of the remaining barley, most is used for livestock feed and malt.

The U.S. share of the world trade market for grain Sorghum productionsorghum stands at 70 percent–a figure bolstered by U.S. exports to Mexico, Japan, Israel, and South Africa, among other nations. Traditionally used for food products, grain sorghum blends with other flours, ending up frequently in snack foods. It is a also a nutritious livestock feed, and as much as 12 percent of it proceeds to the manufacturing of ethanol. Rice industryRice production in the United States is a smaller, more expensive industry that exports about half of its yield. The international rice market, however, is highly competitive, threatening the U.S. interest in it. The remaining half of the U.S. rice yield finds its way into the domestic market, where it is used in the production of food–mostly processed foods, beer, and pet food.


Genetic Genetic engineeringengineering, or methods of modifying crops to breed desirable traits, has drawn much criticism. The process of altering the genetic composition of a crop by the introduction of a gene from any species into a plant to achieve a desired plant characteristic has raised fears of human contamination upon consumption of the plant food. However, with much of the world’s population starving and increased crop production vital to the nation’s economy, the U.S. government approved the first use of Bt cornBt corn, a genetically modified organism, in 1995. Found in soil bacterium and possessing a lethal effect on certain insects, the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) delta endotoxin was introduced to corn to combat the European corn borer caterpillars and, later, the Western corn rootworm. Cereal crop yields, enhanced by the development of Bt corn, are also increased by drought-resistant wheat and flooding-resistant rice.

Mapping of the barley genome, scheduled to be completed by 2012, will lead to genetically modified barley seeds that not only are pest and disease resistant but also will improve malt quality. Despite the use of genetic modification in the United States for more than ten years and unceasing research to further it, the process continues to attract controversy. The controversy is not abated by the fact that crops are often grown to be more resilient and produce higher yields at the expense of their taste and nutritional value. That is, they are bred to be better commodities rather than to taste better.

As oil prices climbed during the early twenty-first century, researchers looked for the best means to make fuel from plants. Plants high in starch content, primarily corn and sorghum, can be turned into Biofuelsbiofuels and are treated with enzymes to convert starch into alcohol and ethanol. Corn, however, is not an efficient biofuel, and its preferential use for ethanol is more a result of the fact that the crop is readily available and that domestically produced, corn-based ethanol is subsidized by the government than of any scientific reason for choosing corn over other, more promising sources of ethanol.

As the ethanol production process is quicker and cheaper for plants high in sugar content–such as the sugarcane of Brazil–the United States has begun to integrate tropical maize into the corn grown in the Midwest. The maize stalks grow about 15 feet tall, compared to the 7.5-foot hybrid corn stalk; with fewer ears, maize contains more concentrated sugar in the stalk. The growth of corn for fuel raises concerns about the possibility of a decrease in the acreage devoted to production of corn and other grains for food; also, ethanol plants have been viewed as the impetus for the rising price of corn. Nevertheless, ethanol has been in production in the United States since 2001, and most automobile manufacturers equip new automobiles with the ability to use a 10 percent ethanol additive to gasoline. Some cities and states have passed laws requiring ethanol additives in an attempt to improve air quality.

Further Reading

  • Abdel-Aal, Elsayed, and Peter Wood, eds. Specialty Grains for Food and Feed. St. Paul, Minn.: American Association of Cereal Chemists, 2005. This collection of essays examines specialty cereal grains, including emmer wheat, waxy wheat, spelt, rye, sorghum, amaranth, and buckwheat, as foodstuffs and livestock feed.
  • Blume, David. Alcohol Can Be a Gas: Fueling an Ethanol Revolution for the Twenty-first Century. Santa Cruz, Calif.: International Institute for Ecological Agriculture, 2007. Aimed at the nonscientific reader, this reference book is a massive tome of information about alcohol–its production and viability for powering vehicles.
  • Dongarra, Jack, ed. Cereals and Pseudocereals. New York: Springer, 2007. Looks at six international cereal crops and their possible use to prevent overemphasis on the reliable major cereal crops.
  • Murphy, Denis J. People, Plants, and Genes: The Story of Crops and Humanity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. A thorough history of cereal crops and their effects on humanity, from earliest times to the present.
  • Nicholl, Desmond S. T. An Introduction to Genetic Engineering. London: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Basic information for students concerning molecular biology and the manipulation of genes. Contains diagrams and maps.



Alcoholic beverage industry

Colonial economic systems

Farm labor

Farm subsidies

Food-processing industries

Rice industry