The nations of North America are at varying levels of economic development. The United States and Canada are the most industrially and technologically advanced nations, with the highest percentages of workers in nonagricultural pursuits—well over 90 per cent. Mexico has a fairly diversified economy and a growing industrial sector. The development of manufacturing, however, has not been widespread and unemployment is a major problem in Mexico.
The nations of Central America and the Caribbean, in general, are the least developed areas. In these areas usually more than a quarter of the work force relies on agriculture for a livelihood.
For most of the countries of North America the service industries are the source of the greatest share of jobs. Wholesale and retail trade and the tourist industry also provide a significant number of jobs.
About 13 per cent of the land in North America is used for growing crops, with a slightly higher percentage used as permanent pasture. About 70 per cent of the farmland is in the United States; about 15 per cent is in Canada; 10 per cent in Mexico; and nearly all of the remainder in Central America.
The United States and Canada are by far the chief producers of agricultural products. In general, farms in the United States and Canada are privately owned, highly mechanized, and large in area. Farms of more than 1,000 acres (405 hectares) are common. In general, farms in the United States and Canada use large quantities of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals.
Large, modern farms and plantations in parts of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean produce a number of commercial crops, mainly for export. However, subsistence farming on small plots predominates. In many cases the land is worked by either tenant farmers or sharecroppers.
The largest share of the cropland in North America is devoted to the growing of cereals, particularly wheat and corn, which account for about a third of the cropland. Nearly a fifth of the world's wheat and almost half of the corn are grown in North America.
The continent's richest farmland is found on the eastern Great Plains, stretching southward from south-central Canada into the United States, and in the so-called Corn Belt of the midwestern United States. Wheat is the main crop of the Great Plains. The Corn Belt produces large amounts of hay, soybeans, and various cereals, in addition to corn. Central Mexico is also a major corn-growing area.
Virtually every kind of fruit and vegetable is grown somewhere in North America. In the United States and Canada, much of the fresh produce supplied to large cities comes from nearby farms that specialize in growing fruits and vegetables. The subtropical and tropical areas of North America are noted for the commercial production of citrus fruits, winter vegetables, cotton, sugarcane, coffee, and bananas. Chief foods grown in these areas for local use are corn, beans, sweet potatoes, various other vegetables, and fruits.
About one-tenth of the cropland is under irrigation. Nearly 70 per cent the irrigated land is in the United States, mainly in California, Texas, and the mountain states from Montana to Arizona and New Mexico; much of the rest is in Mexico. Sugar beets, cotton, and fruits and vegetables are among the crops grown on irrigated land.
A large share of the cereals grown in North America goes to feed livestock. The Corn Belt, for example, is also the chief hog-raising area—much of the corn grown here is used for feed. The raising of beef cattle is a major activity in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Most of the cattle are raised on grazing land, and before marketing are fattened on a rich grain diet. North America is known for the high-quality beef produced in this way. Poultry raising, for both meat and eggs, and dairying are widespread activities. Large-scale, highly mechanized facilities produce the major share of the milk, eggs, and poultry in the United States and Canada. In much of the rest of North America, animals are raised on a small scale by traditional methods.
North America is more highly industrialized than any other continent except Europe and has some of the largest and most diversified manufacturing industries in the world. It is a leader in the production of nearly all kinds of manufactured goods, including motor vehicles, aircraft, aluminum, paper, processed foods, iron and steel, machinery, electrical and electronic equipment, petroleum products, chemicals, textiles, and fabricated metal goods.
The United States and Canada account for most of North America's industrial production. Mexico has also become a significant industrial nation since World War II, though its output is small compared to that of the leaders. Elsewhere on the continent manufacturing remains poorly developed and consists largely of the simple processing of agricultural, mineral, and forest products and the making of basic consumer goods and handicrafts.
Manufacturing facilities are most heavily concentrated in the northeastern United States, including the Great Lakes region, and the adjoining sections of Ontario and Quebec in Canada. This is one of the greatest industrial areas in the world. There are also major concentrations of industry along the Gulf and Pacific coasts of the United States, especially in California, and in and around most of the continent's large cities.
North America is extremely rich in minerals. The continent yields large quantities of most of the minerals important to modern industry, the major exceptions being tin, manganese, chromium, and diamonds.
Fuels are the most valuable mineral resources. The continent accounts for nearly a third of the world's total output of natural gas and about a fifth of the world's total output of coal and petroleum. Much of the natural gas comes from the south-central United States, especially Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Major oil fields are located along the Gulf of Mexico in both Mexico and the United States, and in the south-central United States, California, Alaska, and the Prairie Provinces of Canada, notably Alberta. Enormous amounts of coal are produced, chiefly in the eastern half of the United States. Reserves of coal are large enough to last for centuries.
A wide variety of metals are mined in North America, including two-thirds of the world's molybdenum, almost half of the world's uranium, and more than a quarter of the world's silver, copper, nickel, zinc, and lead. North America's production of iron ore, gold, and bauxite is also significant. Except for bauxite, most of the output comes from the United States and Canada. However, Mexico is also a significant producer of most of these metals and is a leading silver-producing nation. Jamaica is a leading source of bauxite.
Among the wide variety of nonmetallic minerals produced on the continent are asbestos, sulfur, salt, potash, phosphate, stone, clay, and sand and gravel. Canada leads the world in asbestos production, the United States in salt production. Both the United States and Mexico are principal sources of sulfur.
Great forests cover about a third of North America and constitute a leading world source of lumber and wood products. Most of the forestland is concentrated in the United States and Canada.
A vast coniferous forest of spruce, pine, fir, and hemlock stretches from Newfoundland to Alaska. Similar forests in the western mountains yield much commercial timber. Also important are mixed forests of conifers and deciduous trees in southeastern Canada and pine forests in the southeastern United States. Most of the wood cut is used for lumber or processed into pulp for the paper industry.
Tropical forests in Mexico and Central America are little used commercially. Logging operations are hampered by inadequate transportation facilities and the scattered occurrence of valuable trees, which include mahogany, rosewood, and balsa.
North America's coastal waters produce a great variety and abundance of fish. Of outstanding significance are the Grand Banks, off eastern Canada; the lobster fishery off Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New England; the shrimp fishery in the Gulf of Mexico; and the salmon and tuna fisheries of the Pacific. In addition large quantities of menhaden are caught off the middle Atlantic coast of the United States. Chesapeake Bay is noted for its shellfish.
The North American fishing fleet consists of both coastal and oceangoing vessels. Large, mechanized vessels account for a large percentage of the catch, especially in the United States.
The quality and extent of transportation facilities vary according to the level of economic development of each country. The United States and Canada have modern and extensive highway, railway, and air transportation systems. Automobiles play a primary role in transporting people in these countries. Highly efficient freight and bulk cargo transportation is provided by a variety of means, including trucks, railways, ships, barges, and pipelines. Good surface transportation is lacking in northern Canada and Alaska; however, most population centers in these areas have airports.
In Mexico the road and highway system is fairly well developed, especially between large cities. Primary highways link the major cities throughout most of Central America. The secondary road system is not well developed, and transportation in rural areas is poor. Commercial airlines serve most major cities in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
The countries of North America usually account for about 20 per cent of the world's imports and a slightly smaller percentage of the world's exports by value. The United States and Canada are the principal trading nations. As industrial nations they import both manufactured items and raw materials and export mainly manufactured goods. Canada, with its wealth of natural resources and relatively small domestic needs, also exports large amounts of raw materials or semi-processed commodities. Mexico's foreign trade grew substantially during the 1970's; exports include manufactured goods and petroleum. Elsewhere on the continent trade consists largely of the export of a few basic raw materials and agricultural products in exchange for finished goods.
Most trade takes place among the North American nations themselves. Western Europe and Japan are the chief trading areas outside the continent.