Opinions, Wheat

The Role of Wheat in Worldwide Agriculture

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner,

Wheat is the principal grain used to make most breads and pastries.

Grown mostly in the middle latitudes and Northern Hemisphere, annual wheat harvests are watched carefully.

As the “staff of life” to multitudes, annual harvest assessments are important.

As harvest time approaches, government agencies, flour, bread and pastry manufacturers, farmers and international traders need these predictions.

A host of agencies, regional, national and international, use numerous inventory techniques to estimate the annual harvest.

 These include random sampling of farmers’ fields, looking at the plants’ maturity, sampling a few “heads” of grain and documenting the overall quality of the fields, as well as using satellite imagery.

U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies use more statistical and high tech methods for doing their own inventories. When the data from most sources are tallied, a reasonably accurate harvest prediction can be made.

Although wheat is one of the oldest cultivated grains, it is under attack for its high gluten content. Nonetheless, most of the world still demands wheat for breads, pasta and pastries, critical food sources in the diets of most societies.

Gluten-free diets are recommended, however, for people with gluten allergies, a relatively newly recognized health concern.

Wheat is the most versatile of all cereal grains. Wheat grows best in middle latitude climates, but most of the world’s countries cannot produce enough to satisfy the demands of their own populations.

The United States is the largest exception–the world’s largest exporter.

The European wheat region extends across the European subcontinent from Spain to the Ukraine.  There are five major wheat-growing regions in the world today. The North American region extends from North Texas into the prairies of Canada, the Palouse of eastern Washington and Oregon and the Snake River Plain of Idaho.

Asian wheat production is divided into three subregions, Southern Russia and the former Soviet states along Russia’s southern border, northern China and northwest India and Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

Australia’s wheat region lies mostly to the west of the Great Dividing Range and around Perth on the west coast. Argentina’s wheat region is in the Pampas and Patagonia.

There are a few other smaller concentrations of wheat production, but they tend to be in isolated regions, such as the Nile Valley of Egypt, the Maghreb of North Africa, northwest Mexico, Middle Chile and South Africa.

Two climatic factors help determine the concentrations of wheat production worldwide. Wheat grows well in the wet-winter, dry-summer Mediterranean climates of Southern Europe, Australia, South Africa and Middle Chile.

Semi-arid regions also are conducive to wheat production in the North American Great Plains, Ukraine, North China and the India-Pakistan-Afghanistan axis and Argentina.

Ninety percent of the world’s wheat exports comes from the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina and the states of the former Soviet Union (Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan).

The United States produces about 10 percent of the world’s wheat, but on average is responsible for 20 to 30 percent of the world’s wheat exports.

As the Chinese have become more affluent over the recent decade, China has become a major force in the world wheat market. It is not only the world’s largest wheat producing country, but China also imported 882,000 tons (800,000 metric tons) in 2010.

Droughts in Australia and Russia created recent turmoil in the wheat markets a few years ago, with Russia stopping all wheat exports one year, driving the prices of bread to double in many places.

Similar situations can occur because of conflict. The current Ukraine-Russian conflict is causing turbulence in agriculture markets of Europe. Potential impacts on Ukraine wheat production and pricing are still being assessed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) evaluation of U.S. durum wheat (high quality hard wheat) exports vary enormously, from 18 billion bushels in 2008/09 to more than 61 billion in 2007/08.

Much of this variation is related to the volatility of worldwide wheat markets, often tied to variations in harvests and fluctuations in politics in other countries.

All of this can increase or decrease demand for wheat imports and exports. But natural disasters and political and military crises also can have a huge short-term impact, as in the Ukraine and Middle East.

So it is imperative that annual estimates of the potential wheat harvest be accurate. The livelihoods of the many producers, traders, shippers and exporters depend on the predictability of the estimates’ accuracy.