Since I’ve begun this journey on speaking up for wheat, many people have criticized me in doing so. Why in the world would I stand up for a product that has been deemed by many to be “toxic” and “unhealthy”?
Well here’s why. Wheat matters. It matters locally, it matters nation-wide, and more importantly it matters globally.
You may choose not to consume wheat here in the United States or Canada, but the reality is that wheat is sustaining someone else globally. It is so important that when we make food choices, we look beyond ourselves and our own world view. What we grow here in the United States affects far beyond our own homes.
Supporting and allowing Agriculture to continue to flourish and grow is so important, especially when it comes to wheat. When you take a look at wheat on a global scale, you will see some pretty scary numbers. We aren’t meeting the global demand for wheat, and as starving populations of the world continue to grow, we will need to produce more with less.
So welcome to Part 3. The global view of wheat.
1. Wheat Covers More of the Earth Than Any Other Crop
More than 215 million hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres) of wheat are planted globally every single year. At any given time during the year, there is wheat being planted and harvested somewhere in the world. For as long as humans have cultivated plants (about 10,000 years), we have cultivated wheat and worked to improve it since it was first grown. It is amazing to think that our modern day wheat has evolved from three grasses in an area of the world where civilization first started.
But while wheat maintains its lead as the most planted commodity crop worldwide, corn and rice have surpassed wheat in production in the last 20 years. What does this mean?
2. Wheat is Imperative for Global Food Security
This means that we as a world population have to take a serious look at wheat. Ensuring the production of wheat, increasing the yields of wheat, and investing in wheat research will ensure that more wheat can be produced for a growing global population benefitting far beyond our own borders.
Wheat has been deemed the most important protein source in the world and provides nearly 20% of global calories for human consumption. However, in places like North Africa and West and Central Asia, that number jumps to nearly 40-50% of all calories. Think about that. 50% of calories coming from wheat. Wheat is a major global diet component because of wheat’s adaptability, ease of grain storage, and ease of converting grain into flour. Wheat is also an important source of carbohydrates, proteins, and fiber. While there are more than 50,000 edible plants, most of the global population lives on a diet of wheat, rice, and maize.
Among these major staples, wheat is the only crop adapted to low temperatures that can be grown during the cool season. This gives it a unique position in many different crop rotations across the globe with rice, cotton, soybeans, and corn. Although some farmers across the globe have no alternative to wheat as a cool season crop that can be as economically efficient and still provides a dietary component for its population.
3. Producing More Wheat With Less is Necessary
And feeding a hungry population is certainly on the minds of farmers as well as other professionals in the wheat world, wheat production needs to increase ny 60% by 2050 in order to meet the demand of a growing population. In order to meet this demand, current wheat yields must rise by 1.1 – 1.6% percent each year.
Advancements in modern wheat production have allowed us to continue to increase yields, essentially producing more wheat with less resources. Yield stability and increase is largely due the adoption of many modern wheat varieties which include things like disease-resistant traits. Improved agronomic practices have also played an important role. For example, in Turkey, production nearly doubled between 1971 and 1982 as a result of water-conserving practices on the Anatolian Plateau.
But growth in wheat yields is mostly concentrated in developing countries. It is the developing countries that produce more than 45% of the world’s wheat. If you remember from Part 2, here in the United States, we export almost half the wheat (42%) of the wheat we grow. But that still isn’t enough. World wheat production has not met global demand in the 10 of the past 15 years.
USDA projects that although wheat consumption in these developing countries is unlikely to increase, imports and consumption in Africa and the Middle East are projected to rise 14 million tons and account for nearly half the total increase in world wheat trade. And as income rises in places like Indonesia, Vietnam, and some other Asian countries, consumers will likely increase their consumption of wheat from rice. To add to this, Saudi Arabia has adopted a policy to phase out wheat production by 2016 because of water scarcity concerns.
4. Investment in Wheat Research is Required
In order to increase yields and continue production, it requires innovation and research. Since 1994, corn yields have increased by nearly 67% in the U.S., whereas wheat has increased half as much, approximately 35%. In the last 20 years, wheat has become an “orphan crop” in terms of research investments considering how important it is for global food security. As of 2010, global investments in corn research were more than four times greater than in wheat research.
It is because of all of these factors that professionals in many different industries across the globe have banded together to form the Wheat Initiative. In 2013, the initiative formed an international vision for wheat improvement. Through this vision, they have identified and established the necessary steps to address and improve the many challenges facing wheat.
“As part of a global response to the major food security challenge over the next 40 years, international coordination of wheat research is needed to avoid duplication of efforts, increase economic efficiencies, and add value to the existing national or international public and private initiatives.”
And studies have shown initiatives like this to work. A 2013 joint study conducted by scientists across the globe showed that research to control the wheat disease known as stem rust during the period of 1961-2009 has added 6.3 million tons annually to world wheat harvests globally. This is enough wheat to satisfy almost the entire annual calorie deficit of sub-Sarahan Africa.
5. Wheat Matters
It is easy to get wrapped up in the fear put out there by media, celebrities, and even our own day to day lives. But when we take a step back and we look at the bigger picture, we can see how one commodity such as wheat can have an impact on millions of people. It is enlightening to realize how important that one thing we may have once demonized can be to another part of the world.
I hope that through this series I’ve opened your eyes to the importance of wheat, I hope that I’ve allowed you to re-think the part wheat plays in our towns, country, and world today. Even if you choose not to consume wheat, I hope you will recognize that wheat still plays a vital and imperative role in this world.
A decline in wheat production doesn’t just hurt farmers, there are plenty more industries that will feel the effects from milling to baking and food industries across the world. By promoting wheat as an important commodity in our world today, we ensure that the future generations of so many across the globe can enjoy the many benefits wheat has to offer too.
Curtis, BC. (2002.) Wheat in the World.
Lucas, H. (2013). An International Vision for Wheat Improvement.
Matz, M. & O'Connor, M.(2015). Wheat: The Staff of Life.
Pardey, PG. (2013). Right-Sizing Stem-Rust Research.
Scott, A. (2014). Global Food Security: Could Wheat Feed the World?
Vocke, S. & Liefert, O. (2014). USDA Wheat Baseline 2014-2023