Another year of wheat losing position

by Morton Sosland
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It was a macabre sense of humor that permitted a smile in reading on a farming blog that the greatest threat to job security in agriculture is faced by people selling seed wheat in Kansas. ”Maybe salesmen who specialize in small grain drills should also look for employment alternatives,” the blog added. Those wry comments, made well before the acreage report recently issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reflected one way of interpreting what has become strikingly obvious, that plantings of wheat still do face fierce competition from corn and soybeans. These two crops unquestionably have superior returns with a sizable competitive edge on both price and yield. That makes for an unbeatable combination that has been on the minds of executives in grain-based foods who worry about trends that in the extremes might actually cause a domestic wheat shortage.

Little solace may be gained from the way that the actual plantings reported and intended show Kansas having reached a possible stalemate in the state’s battle of wheat versus corn. Kansas wheat seedings even gained this year and are estimated at 9.5 million acres, against 8.8 million in 2011 and the recent low of 8.4 million in 2010. Corn planting intentions are at 4.7 million acres, a little below the recent peak of 4.9 million planted for 2011. Yet, examining these numbers from a historical point of view reveals just how much has shifted in corn’s favor and what wheat has lost. From the recent peak of 14.1 million acres planted in 1982, this year’s Kansas wheat area represents a setback of 33 per cent. In 1982, Kansas produced more than 450 million bushels with a yield of 35 bushels per harvested acre. The yield in 2011 was exactly the same and the outturn was less than 300 million. In almost a total reversal of positions, the Kansas corn crop in 2011 was not much different from wheat in 1982, while its yield is three times or more that of wheat.

Even if the Kansas wheat-corn battle has slowed, which is an assumption overlooking the effect of weather on the two crops, the national picture leaves no question of the trend toward wheat being surpassed by corn. Hardly anything describes that better than the way that this year’s national corn area intentions increase, of nearly 5 per cent, is divided equally among the states, with the notable exception of North Dakota. That state, which has historically vied with Kansas for leadership in wheat production, suddenly accounts for nearly a third of the national increase in corn plantings. Even the hint that North Dakota will repeat Kansas’ experience, seeing wheat lose out to corn as the dominant crop, is difficult to comprehend. That possibility overshadows the small national wheat area gain, of less than 3 per cent, in prospect for 2012. That increase is less than predicted.

Not surprisingly, the trends in wheat have captured the attention of global seed companies. These are making large investments aimed at adapting plant traits in a way to boost yields under varied growing conditions. Programs include applying the latest biotechnology to improve the yield to erase the lead of corn and soybeans. At the same time, research targets enhancing the nutritional quality of wheat to produce a crop that has an improved health and wellness profile. Most of this research is undertaken by commercial organizations devoted to maximizing returns on the sizable investments required. A few inter-governmental and even national groups have joined in order to keep in touch with efforts that will affect a basic food crop.

The overriding issue continuing to loom over this entire effort centers on objections by peoples in large wheat-consuming and wheat-importing areas to genetically-modified grain. Threats to reject wheat modified by good science, as ridiculous as these may be, are a force demanding urgent attention as each year passes in which wheat’s position is diminished.

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