We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.
Food is one of the most fundamental economic commodities in the world. But not all countries are agriculturally equal, and it stands that a handful of places — China, the U.S., India, and Brazil — dominate global food production and exports. That’s not to say that some regions don’t have particular food production prosperity, with native plant species, environmental factors, or infrastructure investments contributing to unexpected agricultural success stories. Take, for instance, Canada’s abundance of lentils or Peru’s booming quinoa industry. Here are 20 foods and their top-producing countries.
Turkey is the world's leading hazelnut producer — by a large margin. The transcontinental country, which straddles Asia and Europe, accounts for about 72.9% of the total global supply. By comparison, Italy, the second-highest hazelnut-producing country in the world, yields just 20% of the world’s supply each year. About 60% of Turkey’s crop comes from the Eastern Black Sea region; the persistent rainfall, moderate temperatures, and hospitable soil on the steep hills create the perfect growing conditions for the nut. It’s likely you’ve sampled Turkey’s supply and not even realized: Companies like Nestlé, Ferrero, and Godiva primarily source hazelnuts for their candy bars, Nutella spread, and decadent chocolates from the region. It should come as no surprise that Turkey is not only the world’s leading hazelnut producer, but also exporter, accounting for 80% of the world’s shipments.
United States: Almonds
The United States — California, in particular — has dominated almond production since the 1980s. Along with innovations in water infrastructure and efficient harvesting techniques (almonds are mechanically shaken from branches during harvest), California’s naturally warm climate helps the tree nut thrive. Each year, approximately 7,600 farmers — many of whom are third- and fourth-generation farm owners who live and work on the land — produce 80% of the world’s almond supply. California is also the top exporter of the nut, shipping over 60% of the world’s supply. The popular food is not only hearty, recently weathering a four-year drought in California, but also healthy and incredibly versatile, gaining popularity as a protein-packed butter and as a dairy alternative in recent years. Almonds grow with a green, fuzzy hull that eventually splits to reveal the porous shell, which is typically removed before the nut makes it to store shelves.
Coconuts have created a heated agricultural competition between Indonesia and the Philippines over the past several years. In 2019, Indonesia edged out the Philippines as the top producer in the world, growing around 19 million tons versus the Philippines’ 14 million tons. (The Philippines, however, remains the world’s top producer of the still-trendy coconut oil.) The coconut is a resilient fruit, and while the palm tree it grows on doesn’t require a specific soil, a high amount of rainfall is needed to properly sustain growth. The trees thrive in humid coastal areas; India, Brazil, Sri Lanka, and Thailand also rank among the world’s major coconut producers. The coconut is extremely versatile; everything from the tree’s leaves and wood to the fruit’s water, meat, and shell can be used, giving the palm tree its nickname, the “Tree of Life.”
American agriculture often conjures up images of Iowan corn or Idaho potatoes. And while it’s true that potatoes remain one of the country’s top vegetable crops by acreage, China is actually the top potato producer in the world. The humble potato is plantable all throughout the country, a lot of which is quite rural and ripe for farming. Most of China’s crops are not exported, however. (Perhaps surprisingly, the Netherlands exports the most potatoes.) In 2015, the Chinese Academy of Sciences recommended an increase in production for the purposes of domestic food security. Not only has production boomed, but new products such as potato noodles and flour hope to position the potato as an ongoing staple in the Chinese diet. Believed to have originated in what is now Peru and northwestern Bolivia between 8000 B.C. and 5000 B.C., potatoes are now grown almost everywhere and are considered the world's fourth most important food crop, after rice, wheat, and maize.
Costa Rica: Pineapples
Although pineapples are native to South America, Costa Rica leads the world in pineapple production and exporting. The small Central American country leans heavily on the crops, which employ about 32,000 people and generate an estimated $1 billion USD a year for the economy. While the crops are bountiful for the country (as well as for Brazil and the Philippines), they require a significant amount of time and effort to produce fruit — one plant typically produces only one or two pineapples every 18 to 24 months. In an effort to speed up the growth, some producers have used man-made fertilizers, but not without criticisms and concerns over the toxicity to the famously environmentally forward country. In response, the Costa Rican pineapple industry is working toward implementing regulations to ensure more sustainable practices.
If you love the smell and taste of vanilla, you can thank Madagascar. Though it originated in Mexico, 80% of the enduringly popular spice is now grown in the East African country. Anyone who has ever sought natural vanilla extract or beans knows that the prices are not always consumer-friendly. But it’s for good reason: Vanilla isn’t an easy crop to grow. Vines take anywhere from two to four years to mature, pollination is done artificially by hand — flowers open only one day a year, and the plant’s natural pollinator, the Melipona bee, is found only in Mexico — and the beans take nine additional months after pollination to be ripe for picking. It then takes many more months of preparing and drying the vanilla beans in the sun for their aromatic appeal to be just right, meaning the process from pollination to shipment takes about one year.
Avocados have become so ubiquitous in food culture that their consumption was once cited as a reason for Millennials not being able to buy homes. But before they became a so-called luxury grocery item for hip young people, avocados were a long-running staple of the Mexican diet, and to this day, Mexico is the leading avocado producer and exporter in the world. Avocados weren’t always so popular outside of their native land, though — it wasn’t until a PR campaign and Super Bowl commercial in the early 1990s that guacamole became a game-day staple. Today, a staggering 87% of America’s supply comes from Mexico, where the avocado industry provides 40,000 jobs and 70,000 seasonal jobs during harvest.
In the mid-to-late 2000s, quinoa enjoyed a huge popularity surge in Europe and the U.S., touted for its health benefits over similar grains. Since 2015, Peru — the native region for the Andes Mountain plant — has emerged as the largest quinoa producer and exporter in the world. The “superfood” is a grain crop, the edible seeds of which are high in protein, amino acids, fiber, iron, and antioxidants. The ancient grain is so revered that it even received a special honor from the United Nations General Assembly, who named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. The popularity and production boom has been financially beneficial to Peruvian farmers, who previously grew quinoa primarily for their own family’s use.
When you think of Canada, wheat, canola, or maple syrup might be some of the top agricultural exports that come to mind. (And rightfully so — our neighbors to the north produce 85% of the syrup in the world.) But it might be more surprising to learn that Canada is the world’s top lentil producer as well. The western prairie province of Saskatchewan is responsible for 65% of the world’s lentils. Saskatchewan also supplies the majority of its own country’s lentil supply — 95% — but India, even with steep import duties, remains the top international importer of Canadian lentils. Started in the 1970s, Canada’s lentil industry is relatively young; there are now more than 5,000 lentil farmers in the country.
Native to Africa, yams have been cultivated there for more than 11,000 years, and the majority of the world’s supply (over 60%) comes from the country of Nigeria. Yams are not only a primary agricultural commodity and staple food for the country, but also have high cultural capital. In Nigeria, where it is often said that “yam is food and food is yam,” traditional dancing, drumming, and costumes accompany the harvest months of August and September. Yams are also present at marriages and have a role in fertility ceremonies. Several other African countries celebrate the starchy root vegetable: Nigeria — together with Ghana, Benin, Ivory Coast, Central Africa, Cameroon, and Togo — produce over 94% of the world's yams.
You may think that Florida, “The Sunshine State,” could be a contender for one of the “orangest” places in the world — it was at one time the world’s top producer. But Brazil actually takes the title, growing 30% of the world’s supply, with 94% of that production concentrated in Sao Paulo. Despite its warm and sunny climate, in the 1960s, a series of frosts devastated Florida crops. The U.S. citrus industry would take repeated hits throughout the 1970s and 1980s as Florida’s growing conditions proved too volatile, paving the way for Brazil to take the top spot in the late 1970s. The orange industry in Brazil has been a boon to the economy, generating more than 200,000 jobs in 300-plus cities, and bringing in export revenue of up to $2.5 billion USD annually.
Turkey is one of the leading countries in Europe (and the world) in terms of agricultural production; not only do they take the top spot in hazelnut production, but they’re also the world’s top cherry producer. The U.S. ranks second, but still only produces almost half what Turkey does. Even as some countries in the European Union — namely Italy, Greece, and Spain — continue to increase their yield, Turkey’s wide geographical growing area allows for a longer growing season than its competitors, ensuring its place as the top producer for the foreseeable future.
Black peppercorns are one of the most essential spices for any household pantry, and Vietnam is to thank for nearly half of the world’s output. The black pepper fruit, which originated in India, thrives in tropical climates. The fruit, which grows on a woody vine, resembles a small berry before being picked and dried into its familiar hardened, shriveled shell. Pepper farms, which are easy to spot across the landscape with their tall, leafy green columns, have started to replace the country’s aging coffee farms over the past decade. (Vietnam is, however, still a leading coffee producer.) The country’s pepper cultivation area tripled between 2013 and 2018, and Vietnam is now looking ahead to ensure that as the industry grows, it does so sustainably.
Artichokes are a classic (if not divisive) pizza topping, so, despite Italy’s modest contributions to the agricultural industry on a global scale, it should come as no surprise that it is the world’s top producer of the vegetable. Artichokes are native to the Mediterranean region and are one of the oldest cultivated vegetables in the world. The layered plant is actually a thistle in the sunflower family; the pointed, edible portion you’re likely familiar with is made up of flower buds before they bloom. (Once bloomed, the violet-blue flower can measure up to seven inches in diameter and becomes coarse and inedible.) Despite Italy’s dominance as an artichoke grower, Spain is actually the world’s leading exporter of the vegetable.
Brazil had a stronghold on the sugar industry for decades, but during the 2018-19 crop year, India took over as the world’s leading sugar producer. As India increased its sugar farmland in recent years, Brazil moved away from traditional production, instead reassigning many mills to harvest the cane for ethanol production. That said, India projects that its sugar yield will dip in 2020 due to drought, which reduced sugarcane planting in 2018, and flooding, which damaged existing crops in 2019. Sugar is made in the leaves of the tall perennial sugarcane stalk, which is also grown in Thailand and China, and in the leaves of the sugar beet, which primarily grow in Europe and Russia.
United States: Beef
Despite Brazil leading the world as a powerhouse beef exporter, the U.S. remains the top country for production. While beef cattle are raised in all 50 states, Texas is the top-producing state, followed by Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and California. The beef lifecycle is considered one of the most elaborate of any food, taking two to three years to get from farm to fork. Cattle will move between several different caretakers, each of whom specialize in what the animal needs at specific points in its life (transportation, feed, or health care). The average American consumed about 57.2 pounds of beef in 2018, although not all of it is necessarily from U.S. ranchers. The country remains a busy beef importer as well, supplementing its own product with meat from Canada, Australia, and Latin American countries.
Of all the cheese-loving countries in the European Union, France and Switzerland are no match for Germany’s 2.2 million tons produced in 2019. Most of the product stays within the EU; outside the European market, the U.S. was the top cheese importer, accounting for 17% of the exports outside the EU. Japan, Switzerland, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia are the other top importers. So, what kind of cheese is Germany making the most of? Fresh cheeses are incredibly popular, from schichtkäse to mozzarella, but the semi-hard, all-time favorite gouda is the most produced cheese in Germany.
Russia: Sugar Beets
Brazil and India may have the sugarcane market on lock, but Russia is the world’s top producer of another, lesser-known sugar plant: the sugar beet. A variety of the common beet, the sugar beet contains a high concentration of sucrose in its roots, making it particularly suited for the production of commercial sugar, molasses (used primarily as cattle feed or for fermentation in the alcohol industry), and pulp (also used as animal feed). Unlike tall sugarcane stalks, which require tropical temperatures to grow, the sugar beet thrives in temperate zones; France and Germany are also top producers. The U.S. contributes to the global sugar beet supply, too, growing the plant in select areas such as Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana.
It’s probably not a huge surprise that India takes the top spot on the list of the world’s biggest mango producers — the tropical fruit is native to the region and accounts for 50% of the world supply. But what you might not know is that mangoes from India only became an export available to the U.S. in the late aughts, when President George W. Bush reportedly allowed the import in exchange for India allowing Harley-Davidson motorcycles into the South Asian country. Still, India is not a top mango provider to the U.S., which instead imports most of its product from Mexico, Peru, and Brazil. Of the approximately 1,500 varieties of mangoes grown in India, the most popular — home and abroad — is the Alphonso, which is also known as the “King of Mangoes.”
The Ivory Coast: Cocoa
Four of the top five cocoa producers in the world are found in Africa, with the Ivory Coast holding the top spot since the late 1970s. Together, the Ivory Coast (also known as Côte d'Ivoire) and Ghana, the second biggest producer, account for half of the world’s cocoa supply. If you add Nigeria and Cameroon, that total increases to 70% of the world supply. The cocoa bean, grown in pods on trees, thrives in hot, humid conditions. The seed is dried and fermented before becoming the primary ingredient found in chocolate. Hershey, Nestle, and Cadbury are some of the major buyers of the Ivory Coast’s crops, which are the driving force of the local economy, employing 600,000 farmers who grow the crops and some 6 million people who work throughout the industry.