Finding new uses has great potential for wheat

by Morton Sosland
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While no one charged with analyzing the supply-demand situation in wheat would describe that effort as easy, it may be helpful to realize how relatively uncomplicated is the wheat situation when compared to corn. The wheat supply each crop year is made up of the beginning carryover, the annual harvest plus imports of grain and wheat-based products. Demand analysis is not so direct or simple. Domestic demand comprises flour mill grind and other domestic food as well as feed and seed uses, the latter being residual figures that are often a source of surprise. The greatest uncertainty, though, centers on exports of wheat as grain and of wheat-based products. Examining foreign trade requires studying the multitude of forces that usually come to bear on international business. But wheat offers few complexities when compared with the situation ruling in corn where a huge share of the export trade is what might be called
invisible.

In the case of wheat, only a minor part of trade deserves that name. “Invisible” refers to exports that represent exports in a form different from the easy-to-count shipments of the grain itself or of an equally visible product like wheat flour. An amazing situation has developed in wheat products trade in recent years as total imports and total exports of wheat flour and wheat-based foods are nearly identical. No business factor explains this. For three years running, the import and export totals of flour and products have been right at 11 million hundredweights in flour equivalent. In turn, those imports and exports represent 25 million bushels of wheat, accounting for less than 3 per cent of aggregate exports, but for a larger share, as much as 20 to 25 per cent, of imports.

The huge difference between wheat and corn emerges in studying these data for the two grains. What is called invisible in wheat suddenly in corn accounts for exports that seem headed for the same level as clearances of corn as grain. In the current 2011-12 crop season, corn grain exports are forecast at 1,650 million bushels and the invisible total is projected at about the same total. At the start of the 21st century, processed exports accounted for only 28 per cent of the total, whereas this season their share is 48 per cent. In the case of wheat, such exports are little more than 10 per cent of overall shipments.

And it is just not the surge in ethanol that accounts for this new factor. Indeed, exporting is a relatively small part of the ethanol influence, accounting for shipments equal to a trifle more than 200 million bushels in 2011-12, contrasted with the 5,050 million bushels processed to make fuel alcohol. The other processed exports include these products as equivalent to exports of corn as grain: distillers’ dried grains, 320 million bushels; meat and poultry, 965 million, and food products, 167 million.

Corn exports as food at this level, it should be noted, are more than six times the aggregate exports of wheat as processed food. The corn includes foods like high fructose syrup, starches and varied ingredients. Whatever the total, though, the figures underscore how growers and processors have benefited from research aimed at finding new corn uses. Such advances, as controversial as they might be when governmental subsidies have a significant role, do emphasize the massive gains from scientific research. Even for meat and poultry exports, which in the case of pork have nearly trebled in the first decade of this century, great benefits have come from advances in product and shipping technology as well as marketing.
As more and more attention turns to what needs to be done to maintain and even expand domestic wheat acreage, steps are not just required to make wheat an attractive crop for farmers drawn to corn. Hardly anything helps an industry like wheat more than new product uses which open markets with high potential.
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