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Wheat is not a “rich man’s crop”

Wheat productivity must first increase in developing countries, where yield gaps continue to be unacceptably high.

There is wide-spread misperception that wheat is mainly produced in rich countries, exported to developing countries and then consumed by those societies’ wealthiest. In fact, for hundreds of millions of poor people their main staple is not maize, rice or cassava – they grow and eat wheat.

Wheat provides around one-fifth of all calories and protein for people globally. More food products are made from wheat than from any other cereal. In developing countries, wheat feeds around 1.2 billion people who live on less than US$ 2 a day. For every three poor rice consumers, there are two poor wheat consumers.

The global wheat trade is bigger than all other staples combined. Of the 150 million tons of wheat exported annually, 125 million tons go to developing countries, where nearly all wheat is consumed as food. Half of the wheat traded globally is exported to Africa and western Asia. Sixty million tons (40 percent) are imported by countries in North Africa and Central and West Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa, which is not considered a traditional wheat-eating region, buys 15 million tons (10 percent of the total).

In Sub-Saharan Africa, demand for wheat is growing faster than for any other commodity. Main drivers include population growth (need for more food), urbanization (wheat is a convenient food for migrating males) and the demand for wheat products by the increasing female work force. Female workers prefer wheat products because of they are fast and easy to prepare, freeing time the women otherwise would spend on traditional food processing and preparation.

Though trade statistics indicate developing countries depend on wheat imported from developed countries, of the 700 million tons wheat harvested globally, around 60 percent of that tonnage is produced and around 70 percent is consumed in developing countries. China, the world’s biggest producer, harvests twice as much wheat as the United States.

In North Africa and Central and West Asia, wheat is more critical for food security than in any other region worldwide, since it provides 35 to 50 percent of all calories and protein. Increases in wheat and bread prices have and will continue to lead to social unrest.

So is wheat a rich man’s crop? These statistics prove otherwise. With increasing income, diets change; they become more diverse and shift to wheat and eventually meat products. But in spite of progress in reducing poverty, challenges remain. The number of people living on less than US$ 1.25 a day declined from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 1.2 billion in 2010, mainly due to a reduction in East Asia. Less progress was made in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where today as many people live in extreme poverty as in 1980. If the absolute number of people living with an income of less than US$ 2 a day is considered, the progress is much smaller – 2.4 billion in 2010 vs. 2.59 billion in 1981.

Mahatma Gandhi best described what wheat means for these people: “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” To end this unacceptable situation, increased wheat production is vital.

In the next 35 years, production of wheat needs to increase by at least 60 percent to meet the increased demand. In other words, the global average yield will need to increase from 3 metric tons per hectare (mt/ha) to 5 mt/ha, in spite of global warming, eroded soils, land scarcity and competition for fertile land and water from higher-valued crops. Considering current production constraints and market realities, the world’s primary wheat-exporting countries are unlikely to provide the extra wheat needed to feed the 2050 global population of 9.6 billion.

Wheat productivity must first increase in developing countries, where yield gaps continue to be unacceptably high. Through increased adoption of improved wheat varieties, better agronomic practices and effective post-harvest storage, developing countries could develop sustainable food systems, become less dependent on imports and stay more resilient against food price increases. These huge challenges can be met, provided investments in breeding and agronomy increase significantly and quickly. Policy-makers must recognize that increasing investments in agriculture is not a problem – it is the basis and solution to improve the livelihoods of the poor.