Food is a 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. China always out-produces the U.S., and in some years India produces more food than the U.S., but China and India also 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, soybeans and beef.
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 farmable 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. To put this number in perspective, 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 largest food producer 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. Farm productivity in India is also far lower than in China, the U.S. or Brazil.
India has another problem: Many of its citizens are too poor to purchase the food it produces. There have been major strides in this century as the Indian economy emerges, but many experts worry 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.
3. The United States
No country produces food as efficiently as the U.S. Despite having a significantly 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 exports 35% less than the U.S. and is closer to tenth-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.
The Brazilian economy has historically centered on agriculture, particularly sugarcane, dating back to its time as a European colony. At least 31% 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 also ranks second (behind the U.S.) in total beef output.
While the U.S. and India may switch ranks, and Brazil may be replaced by another country based on how the production is measured, China remains at the top in food production and consumption.