The magic of wheat

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” Genesis 3:19

Unlike corn or soybeans, humans, not animals or cars, are the most important in terms of the world demand for wheat. On average, animals only eat about 18 per cent of the world’s total production of wheat. This number falls to less than 4 per cent in developing countries but as much as 35 per cent in developed countries. As a rule of thumb, wheat works as animal feed when it is 10 per cent cheaper than corn, or when wet weather reduces its protein content to under 10 per cent.

Even though wheat acreage has increased only modestly, wheat is now grown on more land area than any other food crop: 222 million hectares versus corn at 196 million hectares and rice at 163 million hectares. In 2020, the world’s farmers produced 772 million mt of wheat, making it the second most-produced cereal after corn at 1.1 million mt. Rice comes in at third place at 500 million mt.

Wheat is still the world’s biggest traded agricultural commodity by volume. In 2020 world exports were 194 million mt, just ahead of corn at 184 million mt and soybeans at 170 million mt; little of the world’s rice production trades internationally: 45 million mt in 2020.

If you were to ask your guests at your next dinner party to list the top wheat-producing countries in the world, I bet that they would all get it wrong. They may guess correctly that the EU tops the list at 136 million mt, but few would know that China now produces more wheat—134 million mt—than any other country in the world. China’s farmers now grow about the same quantity of wheat as Russia (85 million mt) and the US (50 million tonnes) combined. India is the world’s third-largest producer at an estimated 107 million mt.

Your party guests may have more success with exporters. Russia is now the world’s largest exporter at 39 million mt, followed by the US at 27 million tonnes and Canada and the EU, both at 26.5 million mt. Ukraine comes in fifth on the list at 17 million mt. (All figures are for 2020.)

I can guarantee that none of your dinner party guests could name the world’s top wheat importers! Although Egypt used to supply the Roman Empire with wheat from the Nile valley, it is now the world’s largest importer at 13 million mt. Unsurprisingly, when you consider their large population, Indonesia comes second at 11 million. China imported nine mln mt of wheat in 2020, while Turkey comes fourth at 8 million mt.

Wheat is an essential source of carbohydrates, but with a protein content of about 13 per cent, it is also the world’s leading source of vegetal protein in human food. However, it is just this protein content—the gluten—that is now causing controversy.

Gluten gives dough its elasticity, helping it rise and keep its shape while at the same time leaving the final product with a chewy texture. However, gluten can trigger adverse inflammatory reactions—a broad spectrum of gluten-related disorders, including celiac disease—in 1 or 2 per cent of the population. Also, between 6 and 10 per cent of people suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity. ‘Wheat Belly’ symptoms can include bloating, headaches, tiredness, and skin problems.

In his bestselling book Wheat Belly published in 2011, the American cardiologist William Davis claimed that modern wheat is addictive; he recommended that you exclude it entirely from your diet.  In promoting his book, he wrote:

‘The wheat of today is nothing like the wheat of 1960, 1950—that is, the wheat that our moms or grandmothers had—so it has been changed. This new crop has implications for human health that have never been anticipated. So, this is appropriate for nobody, no human, nobody in this audience, should be eating this modern creation of genetics research.’

He added: ‘I’d like to make the case that foods made with wheat make you fat…. I’d go as far as saying that overly enthusiastic wheat consumption is the main cause of the obesity and diabetes crisis in the United States.’

His views have been vigorously contested both by scientists and by the wheat industry. As an ex-sugar trader, I am personally delighted that he is blaming wheat rather than sugar for the obesity epidemic of the past forty years. I am, however, unqualified to give an opinion on the matter.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2021

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