Everyone needs food, yet agricultural production tends to be concentrated in the largest countries as well as those with the most accommodative climate in their growing areas. Population size is also crucial because the bulk of agricultural production is still consumed locally or domestically, despite the rapid growth of international trade in farm products,
The world's top four food-producing countries—China, India, the U.S., and Brazil—share the advantages of large populations, ample land area, and climate zones suitable for growing a variety of crops, though there are also major differences in the role that food production plays in their economies.
Below we'll examine the agricultural strengths and weaknesses of each of the four leading food producers.
- The world's top food-producing countries—China, India, the U.S., and Brazil—also rank in the top 10 by land area.
- China is the world's largest grain producer, yet has grown more dependent on food imports in recent decades.
- Much of India's output is produced by subsistence farmers and consumed locally.
- The U.S. is the world's top food exporter thanks to high crop yields and extensive agricultural infrastructure.
- Brazil is the world's fourth-largest food producer and second-largest importer; it is heavily dependent on imports by China.
China was by far the world's leading agricultural producer with 2020 annual output valued at $1.56 trillion, $1.5 trillion of which was food, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.
Agricultural output includes both food and non-food products. Examples of non-food agricultural goods include silk, rubber, wool, cotton, and tobacco.
A key factor was China's status as the world's most populous country with a population of 1.45 billion as of 2022, slightly ahead of India's 1.41 billion.
China has only 10% of the world's arable land yet produces a quarter of the global grain output and leads the planet in the production of cereals, cotton, fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs, and fishery products, according to FAO. While much of China's territory is too mountainous or too arid for farming, the rich soils of its eastern and southern regions are extremely productive.
China also has one of the world's largest pools of agricultural labor. Though the proportion of workers in food production has decreased steadily from 60% in 1991, farm work still accounted for 25% of national employment as of 2019.
Despite the growth of China's agricultural output, it reportedly went from full self-sufficiency in food production as of 2000 to relying on imports for more than 23% of its food needs by 2020. Declining soybean output, rising grain imports, and the continuing loss of farmland to industrial and urban development were blamed.
In 2019, China surpassed the U.S. and the E.U. to become the world's leading importer of agricultural products, with imports valued at $133.1 billion. Imports growth has been driven by land-intensive crops like soybeans, sorghum, and cotton, as well as meat, dairy, fruit, and vegetables as a result of rising consumer demand.
The world's second-largest country by population, India had the second-highest agricultural output at $403.5 billion and in 2020. Of that total agricultural output, $382.2 billion was attributable to food production.
India is the world's largest producer of milk, jute, and pulses (a class of legumes that includes dry beans, lentils, and chickpeas). India is also the world second-largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, fruit, vegetables, cotton, and groundnuts.
Despite achieving self-sufficiency in grain production, India remains heavily reliant on subsistence agriculture as by far the poorest country on this list on a per capita basis. This has dictated the inefficient use of limited resources, particularly water, leaving output dependent on seasonal monsoons and crop yields below the global average. Shortcomings in infrastructure and produce distribution systems have caused post-harvest losses of up to 40% for some crops.
Despite such obstacles, India remains the world's largest exporter of refined sugar and milled rice. Strong exports of rice, cotton, soybeans, and meat helped India move up to 9th place among global agricultural exporters in 2019.
The United States
The U.S. ranked third in 2020 agricultural output at $307.4 billion—$306.4 billion of which was food— despite employing a small fraction of the agricultural workforce of China or India. Corn, soybeans, dairy, wheat and sugar cane were the top five U.S. agricultural commodities by value the same year.
Cereal crop yields and output have continued to rise despite a significant decline in planted acreage in recent decades.
The U.S. was by far the leading global agricultural exporter in 2020 with exports valued at $147.9 billion. In 2021, the value of U.S. exports increased to a record $177 billion, paced by a 25% increase in exports to China to $33 billion. Canada, Mexico, and Japan are also among the leading importers of U.S. agricultural products.
California accounted for 13.5% of U.S. agricultural production in 2020, nearly twice as much as any other state, with dairy, almonds, and grapes its top commodities. Other major agricultural producers include Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, Kansas, Minnesota, and Illinois.
After a downturn in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the prices of key agricultural commodities rebounded in 2021, then soared to record highs in early 2022 as Russia's invasion of Ukraine jeopardized supplies from two major grain exporters.
Brazil was the world's fourth-ranked agricultural producer in 2020 with output valued at $135.8 billion. $125.3 billion of Brazil's agricultural output is food. Brazil's agricultural export value of $85.2 billion in 2020 ranked it third after the U.S. and the Netherlands.
The Brazilian economy has historically focused on agriculture, particularly sugarcane. The proportion of the workforce employed in agriculture has declined steadily over the past three decades, from 20% in 1991 to 9% by 2019.
Brazil is the top global exporter of soybeans, raw sugar, and poultry. Its soybeans exports of $28.6 billion in 2020 were the largest for an agricultural commodity from a single country. China accounted for more than $30 billion of Brazil's agricultural exports that year, nine times more than the second-largest importer.
Which Countries Produce the Most Food?
China, India, the United States, and Brazil are the world's top agricultural producers, in that order.
Which Country Is the Largest Exporter of Food?
The United States is the largest exporter of food, accounting for more than 10% of total global exports in 2020.
Which Countries Produce the Most Food Waste?
Unfortunately, many countries contribute to food waste. According to a 2021 United Nations study, the U.S. discards an estimated 21.3 million tons of food each year. The U.K. wastes more than 5.7 million tons of food each year, while China wastes more than 100 million tons annually. It's estimated that in 2019 there was more than 1 billion tons of food waste.
The Bottom Line
Many factors influence the level of food production in a country, including land area, size of population, climate, and the quality of agricultural infrastructure and technology. While the U.S. is the top exporter of agricultural commodities, other countries including China, India, and Brazil have emerged as major food suppliers.