Why Wheat is an “Orphan Crop:” Conclusion

Historical US corn and wheat yields


The chart above shows the historical average yields for wheat and corn in the US.  Note that until the 1930s the relative yields of the crops were similar and were not changing.  After that time yields of both crops began to rise steadily, but corn yields have grown at a much faster pace.  What explains this difference?

There are several interacting factors behind this, and they work together to create the “orphan” status of wheat as a crop.  Corn is a hybrid crop which enhances its yield and the ease of increasing its yield through breeding.  Wheat is harder to hybridize so it isn’t practical except for extremely high yielding wheat areas like Northern Europe.  Instead, US wheat is largely a “saved seed crop” meaning that the grower can simply save back some of the grain and replant it rather than needing to buy new hybrid seed each year.  That system is workable, particularly if the grower periodically buys some “certified seed” to have a purer stand and to take advantage of breeding improvements.  The down-side of a “saved seed crop” is that there is not a very big private seed industry to invest in the crop.  Most of the breeding is done by University and USDA breeder supported by tax dollars and there is a small private industry as well.  As I said in the previous post, these breeders have done a remarkable job with the resources they have, but in an increasingly ag-unaware society, that support is never generous.

Soybeans are also not hybrid in the US, but that crop has seen substantial private investment.  First this was because corn/soy is the most common crop rotation and a corn seed company had to have a good soybean offering to be competitive.  Since 1996 private investment in soy has grown even more because it is a biotech crop.  Still, the gains in soy yields are not dramatic.  Instead soy breeding and biotechnology has expanded where soy can be grown.  It is now adapted to colder, Northern areas, and also dryer, Western areas.  The latter is also true of corn, particularly as these crops are increasingly grown under a no-till system enabled in part by the biotech herbicide tolerance available in those crops (see an earlier post for all the environmental advantages of that system).

So, what has been the result of these chronic disadvantages for wheat (not hybrid, limited private investment…)?  See the map below.

Historical shift of wheat in the US

I used USDA Census of Agriculture data paired with land area data for each county to look at how much change there had been in wheat planting in each US county between 1977 (when I started working in Ag technology) and 2007.  The blue areas lost wheat and the darker blue lost more.  The red areas gained wheat planting. Note particularly how wheat declined in the Red River Valley that runs between North Dakota and Minnesota and down past Eastern South Dakota.  That is where premium bread wheat was traditionally grown, but where corn and particularly soy have benefited from superior breeding investment.  This change has been driving the wheat to the dry, Western parts of that region.  Note also the decline of wheat in Nebraska and Kansas as corn and soy pushed into those dry areas.  Lots of wheat has also disappeared from the Eastern corn belt in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.  Wheat plantings have also declined in the Pacific Northwest.  The small increases in other regions has not made up for this shift at all.

Wheat growers have been watching these trends for a long time and are rightly concerned.  This is not just about us, the US supplies wheat to the rest of the world including many poor countries that can’t grow enough of their own.  This is why a majority of wheat growers in the US and the other largest exporters, Canada and Australia, want to see biotechnology used for wheat.  It could help with drought tolerance, Fusarium resistance, salt tolerance and other issues that have proven difficult to deal with through conventional breeding.  Biotech could make it easier to grow No-till wheat with all its environmental benefits.  It could bring some much needed private investment to the wheat crop.

Major wheat customers in Europe and Japan blocked biotech wheat 5-6 years ago because they didn’t want any issues with their consumers.  This unofficial blockage was carried out even though several panels of EU scientists have argued for the safety of biotech, and even though other biotech crops have been grown safely on billions of acres over more than 12 years.  This is a bow to the “precautionary” leanings of activist minorities in affluent cultures that are in no risk of food shortage.  Those same countries have also reduced their support over time for the international agencies that do wheat breeding for the developing world at places like CIMMYT.

These anti-GMO forces need to explain just how they imagine feeding the next 3 billion people on the planet, in an age of extreme weather events caused by global warming, when one of the most important human food crops is lagging so far behind.

  1. Dr.A.K.Chowdhury

    I think the above comment is partially right as some research projects have been undertaken funded by BMGF, USAID to enhance wheat production in South Asia particularly India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. I also think that biotechnology alone is not sufficient to enhance the production.

  2. Daren Coppock

    Steve – thank you very much for your series of excellent posts on wheat. It’s pretty plain to see why wheat growers have established a goal of increasing yields by 20% in 10 years and bringing to bear the tools of biotechnology. We have a serious competitiveness issue and are working diligently to address it, but we’re going to need support from the entire supply chain all the way to consumers to get the job done.

    Daren Coppock
    Chief Executive Officer
    National Association of Wheat Growers

  3. Steve Savage

    Dr Chowdhury, I agree that biotechnology is not enough alone. The fundamentals of good cultural practices, conventional breeding and crop protection must always be there. Biotech can only help with certain specific issues

  4. russ

    It used to be that you could only grow your ‘quota’ of acres. You had to plant your quota each year or it was reduced for following years never to go up again.

    My father lost interest in wheat due to quotas and the fact it was one of the cheaper crops.

    In central Oregon it was also hard to fit wheat into a good crop rotation, especially considering the quotas.

    Some years back ‘farm marketing orders’ left over from the depression era were still on the books. plums and hops were among those covered. Is that still in existence or did it finally go away?

  5. Steve Savage

    Daren, You are right about the entire supply chain. There is actual concern among millers and bakers about future high costs for quality wheat. Whether this will translate into explicit support for biotech remains to be seen
    Russ, I’m not aware of quotas for wheat today but I could uninformed on that

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