Photograph by Chirantan Bhawal/National Geographic Your Shot
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Corn cobs grilled on hot coals are a favorite snack the world over.
Photograph by Chirantan Bhawal/National Geographic Your Shot

Your Shot: Corn Is King for Creatures Great and Small

We tend to think of corn as food (or drink, as bourbon lovers will be quick to point out). Food for people.

This grain, cultivated almost everywhere on the planet, certainly is a people food—and a beloved one at that. Hot, sweet corn cobs slathered with butter, chili powder or lime is a warm-weather favorite the world over. And who doesn’t love cornbread with chili or tortilla chips with salsa? And don’t forget plump, moist arepas in Venezuela, creamy pap porridge in South Africa, and hearty polenta in Italy. Then there’s the thousands of processed foods and beverages that contain corn, corn oil, or the controversial sweetness of corn syrup.

So yes, people do consume a lot of corn. But in reality, relatively little of the grain ends up in our bellies—at least in the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest producers of corn.

In China, corn production recently surpassed rice, the nation’s staple food. But the majority of that harvest is used for animal feed. Only ten percent of it grown for human consumption there, and only about ten percent of the crop is used for food and beverage products in the U.S., as well. The rest is used for animal feed (just less than 40 percent), ethanol (30 percent), or exported.

That’s because much of the corn that people enjoy  fresh, frozen, or canned is known as sweet corn.  Most corn grown in China and the United States is the harder and starchier field corn. And while field corn is used in a variety of processed food products, like cornmeal, masa, sweeteners, and alcohol, most of it ends up dinner for cattle and pigs.

However you ingest your corn today (and odds are you will), take a few minutes to look at some of our favorite photos of corn from around the world, brought to you by our Your Shot community.