Food is an important and fundamental economic product, but only a handful of countries actually excel at food production. Most agricultural commodities require a lot of land, which only the largest countries have in abundance. In fact, the world's four dominant food-producing countries all rank in the top five for total geographic size.
The United States has long been a superpower in food markets – and it is still the world's largest food exporter – but it falls to third place when measuring total output. China and India produce more food than the U.S., but they end up consuming much more of their own products. This makes sense, since China and India have the world's largest populations by a wide margin.
These three countries (the U.S., China and India) each produce more food than the entire European Union put together. In fourth place is Brazil; its food industry tilts heavily towards sugarcane and soybeans.
One country noticeably missing from the list is Russia, the largest country in the world and home to the ninth-largest population. Russia is partially a victim of its own harsh northern climate. A huge percentage of the Russian territory is neither arable nor pasturable. Russia also has a history of low-output farms.
Easily topping the list is China, which is the world's biggest producer, importer and consumer of food. Much of China's land is too mountainous or too arid for farming, but the rich soils of the eastern and southern regions are extremely productive. China also has the world's largest food workforce, with some estimates as high as 315 million laborers. By comparison, the U.S. is the world's third most populous country, with 320 million people.
China is the most prolific producer of an impressive list of foods: rice, wheat, potatoes, lettuce, onions, cabbage, green beans, broccoli, eggplant, spinach, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, pumpkins, pears, grapes, apples, peaches, plums, watermelons, sheep milk, chicken, pork, sheep, goat, peanuts, eggs, fish and honey.
In terms of total calorie content, India is the second most productive food country in the world. When measured by the total value of agricultural production instead, India drops to fourth place and produces less than half of China's total output.
India has another problem: Many of its citizens are too poor to purchase the food it produces. There have been major strides in the 21st century as the Indian economy emerges, but many experts worry that the Indian population is growing even faster. At 1.2 billion people with a very high birth rate, India is expected to eclipse China as the world's largest population.
Farm productivity in India is also far lower than in China, the U.S. or Brazil. In 2010, analyst and author Somini Sengupta outlined three steps to boost Indian food efficiency: reduce food staple spoilage, improve infrastructure and reduce restrictions on producers.
3. The US
No country produces as much as efficiently as the U.S. Despite having a smaller workforce than China, total U.S. agricultural product is almost as high. Food production is spread across much of the country, but the largest food-producing states include California, Iowa, Texas, Nebraska and Illinois.
American companies dominate the food export market; second-place Netherlands still exports 35% less than the U.S. and is closer to 10th-place China in terms of international product. The U.S. has been the world's largest exporter of food for a very long time thanks to an increasingly productive farming sector. In fact, the total food production in the U.S. has more than doubled in the post-war period (from 1948 to 2015).
The Brazilian economy is historically centered on agriculture, particularly sugarcane, dating back to its time as a European colony. Thirty-one percent of Brazil is used as cropland, largely to produce coffee, sugarcane, soybeans and corn.
Brazil is also a major producer of oranges, pineapples, papaya and coconuts thanks to its warm, fruit-friendly climate. The country ranks second (behind the U.S.) in total beef output.