Where Stuff Is Made: An Illustrative Overview (Part 1: Agricultural Commodities)

This is a visual story of where stuff is made, moved and consumed.

From production to export, import to consumption, we’ll explore the flows of the world’s most crucial commodities and products. 

Below is $21 trillion of global trade. Box size represents exports by dollar value.

Global exports/imports by HS2 code 2021. OEC

We’ll dive into a hand-picked selection of the big ticket items above in this four part series.

In Part 1 (this post), we run through the primary sector: agricultural products (beef, soybeans, wheat etc).

Then in Part 2, we’ll dig into minerals, metals, and industrial materials (coal, crude oil, iron ore etc).

Next in line, in Part 3, we’ll examine the secondary sector. Manufactured goods ranging from everyday consumer goods through to more advanced engineering marvels.

Finally, in Part 4, we’ll cover the tertiary sector: services.

Now it should come as no surprise that the biggest countries stand as the biggest producers, the biggest exporters…

Global exports by country 2021. OEC

… as well as the biggest importers…

Global imports by country 2021. OEC

… and the biggest consumers of stuff.

However, big countries’ big production usually caters to their domestic consumption demands. For instance, China is the world’s leading rice producer with 211M tonnes of annual production…


… but they eat most of it… leaving India as the leading exporter with 22M tonnes.

Data source

Our interest therefore lies in the critical few nations that wield a disproportionate influence over global supply and demand.

In particular, we’ll identify supply monopolies – the key exporters of critical upstream raw materials. As well as demand monopolies – the key importers of downstream finished products. To illustrate this, let’s take coffee for instance.

It goes without saying that coffee is a crucial commodity. Much of humanity’s intellectual stimulation and consciousness depends on it. And if we ever ran out, a lot of people would be upset.

Further elevating its importance, coffee production is highly concentrated along the bean belt.


And climate change is threatening this – both longitudinally (thinner bean belt) and altitudinally (being forced to go higher up the hills).

As we’d expect, the top coffee producers – Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia – are…


… also the top exporters.

Coffee exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $36B

But oddly enough, Western Europe are big exporters too.

This is because they import raw coffee beans and process (roast, decaffeinate etc) them for exports.

Raw coffee bean exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $21B

So coffee is a cautionary tale of solely looking at aggregate export data. We need to identify the upstream suppliers of raw input materials. In fact, my initial disbelief seeing Germany in this visualisation below is part of what prompted me to write this post.

Coffee exports 2017. HowMuch.net

With this intent in mind, let’s jump in.

Part 1: Agricultural Commodities

Dairy: We’ll start with our first taste of the world. Milk, butter, cheese, and other animal origin products (eggs, honey etc). New Zealand is the world’s dairy queen. 

Dairy exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $110B

Important note: The substantial amount of ‘European purple’ you’ll often see as both top exporters and importers reflects intra-EU trade. This is akin to American states trading with each other. Keep this in mind throughout this post.

Beef: Brazil, US, Australia, NZ, and surprisingly India are the top exporters (as it includes water buffalo)… both in dollars…

 Frozen beef exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $33B

… as well as metric tons. Notably, Argentina sells their beef at a lower price per ton.


France, Australia, Canada lead live stock exports though. 

Live bovine exports 2021 $10B

Again, we see lots of ‘European’ purple on both sides here. So Asia primarily imports frozen beef, while Europe imports live cattle.

Chicken: Poultry comes from Brazil and the US…

Poultry meat exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $31B

… as does most pork.

Pork: By now you may have noticed that Asia doesn’t export much meat. This is most evident looking at pork exports. Look how little red there is below for exports on the left.

Pork exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $37B

Lamb and mutton: While China likes ANZ lamb, it’s not much of a hit in the Muslim nations. Not halal.

Lamb and mutton exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $11B

Live goats from Romania, Sudan, Iran, and Somalia, however, are highly popular in the Middle East.

Live sheep and goat exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $2B

Seafood: Norway, Vietnam, and Chile punch above their economic weight as top exporters. 

Seafood exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $130B

Enough protein, now onto veggies.

Live plants: Bulbs. Seedlings. Flowers. Despite ranking 131st globally on land area, Netherlands is the Europe’s nursery. Note the low trade volume outside of EU indicates that countries in other regions mostly self-produce.

Live plants and bulbs exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $27B

Vegetables: Spain and Netherlands supply Europe’s vegetables. Mexico supplies America’s.

Vegetable exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $83B

Fruit and nuts: Looking at $147B in aggregate, it’s fairly dispersed.

Fruit and nut exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $147B

Let’s break this down further.

Apples and pears come from more temperature climates.

Apples and pear exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $11B

Bananas: Central America (Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala) and Philippines.

Banana exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $14B

Berries: Thailand and New Zealand supply Asia. Spain and Netherlands supply Europe. Mexico and Peru supply the Americas.

Berry exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $25B

Citrus fruits: Spain and South Africa.

Citrus exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $17B

Nuts: US and Turkey are notable exporters.

Nut exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $20B. Excludes coconuts, Brazil nuts, and cashews

Now we move onto key staples, starting the most important one, soybeans.

Soybeans: Brazil is the world’s pantry. 85% of global soybean exports come from Brazil and the US. 

Soybean exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $79B

More than half of this ends up in China – serving as a key ingredient in tofu and livestock feed.

In fact, $23B of Brazilian soybeans going to China is the world’s biggest agricultural trade flow, by a long margin.


US soybean production is actually on par with Brazil’s but it consumes most of it domestically (mostly to feed livestock).


Wheat: Although China and India are top producers, they consume most of it. Top exporters are temperate-climate landmasses: Russia, Canada and US.


Unlike other commodities we’ve looked at so far (meat, fruit and vegetables), Africa imports a lot carbs. 

Wheat exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $62B

Rice accounts for 20% of humanity’s calories. While north Africa prefers wheat, sub-Saharan Africa prefers rice.

Recall from the intro, top exporters are India, Thailand, and Vietnam. Vietnam temporarily banning rice exports Mar-May 2020 at the height of COVID fears is a prime example of global supply fragility.

Rice exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $28B

Corn / maize: Used for making corn syrup, a cheap substitute for sugar. US, China, and Brazil are the top producers.

Data source

US, Brazil, Argentina, and Ukraine are top exporters.

Corn exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $52B

Supply growth has been met outside of the US.


We’ll now slip into oils.

Soybean oil: Unsurprisingly, Argentina and Brazil are top exporters. India is the top importer for many oils.

Soybean oil exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $17B

Olive oil: Spain, Italy, and Greece satiate the demands of the Western world’s most preferred cooking oil. However, at only $9B, note its relatively small trade volume compared to other oils.

Olive oil exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $9B

Palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. Most of this ends up India and the rest of Asia.

Palm oil exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $51B

Seed oils (eg sunflower oil) come from Eastern Europe.

Seed oils exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $17B

Rapeseed oil (inc canola oil) comes from Canada, Germany, and Russia. Fun fact: canola oil comes from Canada’s genetically modified version of rapeseed. ‘Canola’ is ‘Can’ for Canada + ‘ola’ for oil. 

Rapeseed oil exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $12B

Next, the stimulants. 

Coffee: We already covered coffee in the intro, but will add on 3 more points.

The second-highest producer, Vietnam, beats third place Colombia by more than double. More impressively, Vietnam boasts the highest coffee yields in the world.


Second, Africa barely drinks any coffee (very little yellow in bottom right), preferring tea (as we’ll cover next).

Coffee exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $36B

Third, Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, stands as an exception. Its unique historical status of having experienced minimal to no European colonialism has shaped their approach to their prized produce, reserving the best for local consumption.

Was lucky enough to try it in Ethiopia in Dec19. Can confirm it’s good 🙂

Tea: China, Sri Lanka, and Kenya are top exporters. Russia, Britain, Asia and Africa can’t get enough of it.

Tea exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $8B

Green tea comes from China, Vietnam, and Japan. Black tea (in <3kg packages) comes from Sri Lanka. Black tea (in >3kg packages) comes from Kenya.

Fun fact: Cha by land, tea by sea.

Wine: Top exporters are the romantic European nations: France, Italy, and Spain.


Top importers are the rich nations.

Wine exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $41B

Basically, prejudices on European diets is warranted by the data: tomato, potato, wine, beer, spirits, olive oil, butter, tea, coffee.

Atlas of Prejudice

Sugar: Brazil, India, EU, and Thailand are the top producers.

Data source

While Brazil exports most of this raw…

Raw sugar exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $15B

… India leads the way in refined sugar exports (surpassing Thailand a few years ago). Notably, Germany and France produce and then refine substantial amounts for European consumption.

Refined sugar exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $13B

That a sweet end to edible agricultural commodities.

Now there’s an array of non-edible agricultural and forestry commodities to cover: wood, paper, cotton etc.

We’ll touch on wood here. Building on this, we’ll get a grip on rubber in Part 2: Mining and Industrial Goods. Then flick through paper and iron out clothing materials (cotton, wool, leather) in Part 3: Manufactured Goods. (Sorry about the puns. I can’t help it. Almost done…)

Lumber: Looking at wood exports in aggregate ($189B) is highly misleading as it includes processed wood like fiberboard ($13B) and plywood ($21B), as well as various finished products like crates ($5B), kitchenware ($2B), ornaments ($3B) etc.

The most upstream wood, sawn wood ($56B), is supplied by Canada, Russia and Sweden’s vast forestry. Asia imports a lots of raw wood from outside the region…

Sawn wood exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $56B

… with the exception of Vietnamese fuel wood (100% of which goes to Asia).

Fuel wood exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $11B

New Zealand is a top exporter of rough wood.

Rough wood exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $18B

Trade of high-quality carpentry wood used in construction is highly regionalized: Europe supplies Europe, Canada supplies US, China-Philippines-Indonesia supplies Japan etc.

Carpentry wood exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $19B

Fertilizer: While technically not an agricultural product, it’s undoubtedly a key input so I’ve included this here. Overall, Russia, China, Canada, and Morocco are the top exporters. Agricultural giant Brazil is the biggest importer.

Fertilizer exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $95B

Consider 5 types of fertilizer, $95B of global exports can be decomposed as: animal or vegetable ($1B), nitrogenous ($37B), phosphatic ($3B), potassic ($19B), and mixed ($35B).

No surprise, China leads fertilizer production.


Nitrogenous fertilizer exports come from China, Russia, and the Middle East.

Nitrogenous fertilizer exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $37B

Phosphatic fertilizer exports come from China, Morocco, and Egypt. Top importeres are Brazil and Bangladesh.

Phosphatic fertilizer exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $3B

Potassic fertilizer comes from Russsia and Belarus.

Potassic fertilizer exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $19B

Brazil (the pantry of the world) and Mexico are most vulnerable to Russian political unrest with Belarus and Ukraine.


Mixed or chemical fertilizer: top exporters are a mix of the above, China, Russia, Morocco.

Mixed mineral or chemical fertilizer exports (left) and imports (right) 2021 $35B

We covered so much. Yet we only skimmed over a fraction ($2.2T) of global goods trade ($21.0T).

Next in Where Stuff Is Made Part 2, we’ll uncover Minerals, Metals and Industrial Materials.

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If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy:

Where Stuff Is Made: An Illustrative Overview (Part 2: Minerals, Metals, and Industrial Materials)

Where Stuff Is Made: An Illustrative Overview (Part 3: Manufactured Goods)

Where Stuff Is Made: An Illustrative Overview (Part 4: Services)