America Is No Longer the World’s Breadbasket
For generations, the United States was a global agricultural power, sometimes referred to as the breadbasket of the world. Today, however, the U.S. is simply an afterthought. Our exports of staple crops have been relatively unchanged over nearly 30 years. Meanwhile, agricultural production has exploded all around the globe. According to a study by researchers at the University of Tennessee, U.S. exports of corn, wheat and soy fell 5 percent from 1980 to 2009. And as our exports fell, other nations’ exports of the same products grew 66 percent.
While this does mean that our export economy is sorely behind the rest of the world, it should be expected that as other nations grow and cultivate expanses of cropland, the world will be less dependent on our produce. We essentially maxed out our land usage 40 or 50 years ago, and although we can increase yields with modern technological advances, so can everyone else.
But there is a bigger picture to see in our crop export economy. For decades, there was literally no better place in the entire world to grow staple crops like wheat, corn and soy. We had higher yields, better quality, and stronger products. Now, our crops are no different than those you can find almost anywhere else in the world. As yields in China begin to increase, and the Chinese begin exporting more staple crops, the market for U.S. goods will diminish even more.
The U.S. could not really expect to maintain its global dominance of crop exports forever; eventually other nations would catch up. But the slow deterioration of our international crop markets has mirrored the slow deterioration of our markets for all other goods, as well.
Declines in farm employment are tough for farmers, but they don’t really hurt the national economy – a single combine can do the same job as dozens of men. Declines in farm employment due to technology are unavoidable. However, declines in the technology sector could and should have been avoided. Losing a few assembly jobs in Detroit to an automated robot is one thing; losing the entire plant to Toyota City in Japan is another entirely.
We cannot maintain a monopoly on grains and oilseeds, nor would we really want to. But we could have maintained dominance and gotten a strong foothold in the industries and technologies of the next century. We did not, and we still haven’t. That lack of industrial evolution is restraining economic growth.