Monday, June 21, 2010
Wheat is more than just a crop
By Alan Caruba
Long ago I was in a class studying history and a professor said something I never forgot. He said that no nation is more than two weeks away from revolution if it cannot feed its people.
We know, however, that dictatorships like the former Soviet Union used famine as a political weapon against the Ukraine, that China has experienced famines, and that North Korea barely manages to feed its people. Food is so essential to political control that all nations pay attention to its provision.
Perhaps no single crop is more essential than wheat. In the 1980s I traveled everywhere in the U.S. as a writer and often visited farmers, learning about what new techniques and products they were using to enhance crop yield. It gave me a lesson regarding the role of agriculture that this suburban New Jersey boy could never have acquired.
With a tip of the hat to Wheat Life, a publication of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, here’s a quick look at the role of wheat around the world. Though farmers represent only about two percent of America’s population, they produce an abundance of wheat and other crops, enough to feed all of us and to export internationally. They are a major contributor to the nation’s economy.
The share of the world’s wheat market in 2008 showed America’s dominance with 29%. This was followed by 14% from Russia and 12% from Australia.
A word of caution about any foods coming out of China; there have been too many cases of adulterated foods whether it was pet food, milk, or flour. One firm, Yuzhong Food Additive Company, has occasioned a flurry of warnings against doing business with it.
For years, self-anointed environmentalists have warned against the greatest advance in crop growth of modern times, those that have been genetically modified to withstand drought, fend off various insect pests, and increase vitamin A so children in nations where it is not naturally available can benefit. The Canada Wheat Board led the fight against GMO wheat, but has now recognized that a zero tolerance policy makes no sense.
Iceland was in the news when its unpronounceable volcano, Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, but scientists worry that another volcano, Katla, could erupt. It is considerably larger and could affect northern hemisphere farming. It erupted in 1918 and is estimated to be a hundred times larger than Katla. Scientists say it is overdue to erupt.
Saudi Arabia is a big importer of wheat because it does not have much arable land to grow it. It has announced that it plans to stop growing wheat in the spring of 2016 and that means US, Argentine, European, and Australian growers will benefit. In 2010-11, it is expected to import two million metric tons.
Iran, when it isn’t secretly trying to produce nuclear weapons and rule the entire Middle East, is a wheat producer and is expected to export two million metric tons to Oman, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates this year. Its wheat crop is expected to reach nine to twelve million tons. Connect the dots and you will see why its wheat crop influences the decisions of Gulf states.
Despite diplomatic and other differences we may have with Russia these days, Deere & Company, the iconic tractor and implement manufacturer, plans to expand its investment and operations there. Russia has nearly 9% of the world’s arable land, 20% of its forested land, and 8% of its fresh water. The Chairman of Deere says it has the potential of being one of the world’s major food-producing areas.
It doesn’t matter where you look on the globe of the world, wheat, the stuff of bread, cakes, pizzas, pasta, and just about anything you will eat today plays a significant and subtle role in the economies of nations. That means you can count on the governments of the world and its international institutions to always pay it close attention while meddling as much as they can.
With a population of more than six billion people, keeping them fed is fundamental to maintaining peace no matter what other threats exist.
© Alan Caruba, 2010