Why Wheat Has Been an “Orphan Crop” and Why it Matters

Wheat Field

I read an article today about a major shortfall in the Kenyan wheat harvest that will drive the need for major imports to meet food needs.  There were three major factors behind this disappointing harvest.  Tight credit and high energy prices kept some growers from even planting.  The rains were not well timed to achieve good yields.  Also a new strain of a very serious wheat disease, UG99 Stem Rust, further reduced yields.

This news has nudged me to write a series of posts about wheat because as a crop, it has a lot more problems than one bad harvest in Kenya.  The Kenya example just stands as an example of the vulnerability of this extremely important world food crop-a crop that is really an “orphan” in today’s agricultural scene.

Wheat Today

Wheat is one of the world’s largest food crops, but it is at a disadvantage compared to other major crops and its productivity growth is leveling-off at a time when the world is demanding more and more of it (see graph below).  This becomes an issue for the sustainability of the food supply.

Wheat production is leveling off world-wide

I’ll list the reasons I call Wheat an “orphan crop” below and expand on most of them in future posts.

  • World-wide wheat production is threatened today by the UG-99, Stem Rust pathogen described above (Fortunately there is a cooperative, international, crash-effort to develop resistance for the mostly-vulnerable wheat lines that are grown around the world today, but it is in a serious race to prevent major problems as the pathogen spreads)
  • “Wheat” is not a largely monolithic crop like corn or soybeans.  It is really a collection of distinct crops like Durum Wheat for pasta, Hard Red Spring Wheat for high quality bread, Soft White Winter Wheat for things like Asian noodles and several other combinations of hard/soft, red/white, and spring/winter.  Each type needs its own breeding program and has its own critical quality characteristics over-and-above the need for pest resistance, stress tolerance and high yield.
  • Wheat is not a “hybrid crop” (like corn, tomatoes, Canola…) except in a few regions, so it doesn’t have the yield and rate of yield-increase advantages that come from hybridization.
  • The private seed companies breeding Wheat are small, so the level of private investment in the improvement of wheat is much smaller than for other crops.  Traditionally this has been an area covered by public breeding investment, but that support has been declining for some time.
  • One of wheat’s strengths is also its disadvantage.  It is a crop that can be grown in places that are too dry or cold for most other crops, so it is largely relegated to those locations except under high subsidies in Europe. That makes it’s supply much less certain.
  • Commercial Biotechnology traits have been blocked in wheat because of the leverage that Europe and Japan have as major buyers of wheat on the international grain market.  Wheat production overlaps with the major biotech crops like corn, soybeans, cotton and canola, and it has become a less attractive option for farmers in those areas because it lacks the traits that make those other crops more profitable and easier to manage.

I don’t want to be alarmist, but over the next few decades, these wheat industry limitations and disadvantages are going to mean food shortages, mainly for poor people.  Wheat is a heavily traded commodity and has been at least since Roman times.  A significant part of the world’s population is dependent on imported wheat (just as Kenya will be this year).  If wheat continues to be an orphan crop, the poorest wheat customers will suffer.

Wheat Field Photograph by Kevin Lallier.  Graph by Steve Savage

  1. Patrick

    I knew we eat way too much corn as it is along with the high demand for biofuels, so I’m not too shocked that corn production has gone way up. I am shocked that wheat production has dropped. Interesting read.

  2. Steve Savage

    We actually don’t eat most of the corn directly. It is mostly for animal feed and ethanol. We do eat a lot of products that contain corn components like starch or high fructose corn syrup derived from starch. Actually, corn goes into so many products its hard to summarize, but the bulk is still for animal feed

  3. TM

    I have been wondering why wheat yield in Europe is more than twice the US average? Haven’t found an explanation by googling. If you know more about this, I’d appreciate a response.

    “I don’t want to be alarmist, but over the next few decades, these wheat industry limitations and disadvantages are going to mean food shortages, mainly for poor people.”
    Do the math. The current global grain production alone is more than plenty to feed the world. Current agricultural productivity is sufficient to feed the world and even (if it were efficiently used) a few billion more. Marginal productivity increases are not likely going to be major drivers of global food supply. Food security is threatened by excessive meat production, biofuels, and simple waste (30-40% in the US). These issues are much more pressing than technological fixes.

    1. Steve Savage

      The reason that wheat yields in Europe are so much higher than in most of the US is a combination of two factors. First, the weather is more conducive for winter wheat (planted in the fall, dormant in the winter, finishing in spring). Europe tends to have a more conducive climate for that with a long period of maturation in the spring before it gets really hot. That may change with climate change.

      The second reason is that Europeans plant wheat on some of their best land. Part of that is the weather thing and part is their crop subsidies. In the US, wheat is mostly planted in regions where higher profit crops (corn, soybeans, cotton…) can’t be economically practical. Most US wheat is on “marginal land.” We have a little bit of intensive wheat that is more like the European model (e.g. in Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky), but most of it is on rain-fed land that isn’t suitable for other crops.

      I agree with you that the math about wheat and feeding the world. It is a big concern.

      I’m wanting to do some math on the meat issue. I know it is real, but it might be overblown. Biofuels are an issue as a food competitor, but they have a role in the whole energy issue as well. Waste is a huge issue, but not so much for grain crops. When you get to fresh produce it is a huge issue.

      I guess I’m in the camp of believing that many of the “fixes” for these issues are also best solved by technological advances.

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