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Wheat acreage decline connected to demographics, economics

Making wheat more productive won’t likely boost plantings, but it will help keep the crop in farmers’ rotations, says the WGRF’s Garth Patterson

As wheat plantings decline in Western Canada and elsewhere, some say the fix is transferring the innovation in crops such as canola, soybeans and corn.

But there are other factors at play, says Garth Patterson, executive director of the Western Grains Research Foundation.

Wheat acres have declined because farmers make more money with other crops, says Garth Patterson, executive director of the Western Grains Research Foundation. World wheat consumption is tied to the rise in population, but corn and soybean demand is also driven by a shift in diet, he told the 3rd Canadian Wheat Symposium.

Garth Patterson, executive director of the Western Grains Research Foundation.
photo: Allan Dawson

“The markets aren’t treating wheat as favourably as some of the other crops,” he said Nov. 23 during a panel discussion on public and private wheat breeding at the 3rd Canadian Wheat Symposium. “And the issue is attracting investment so we have to work together (as public and private wheat breeders).”

A Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report says demand for commodities such as corn, vegetable oil and sugar are driven by a growing world population and poor people earning better incomes, but wheat demand is driven only by population growth, he said.

World food prices were up an average of 73 per cent between the base years of 2002 and 2004 and 2016, the FAO said. Meat (much of it produced by feeding corn and soybean meal) went up 63 per cent, while vegetable oil and sugar jumped 68 and 215 per cent, respectively. Cereal prices, up 43 per cent, were well below the average, Patterson noted.

Average annual world corn consumption was up three per cent the last five years, but wheat consumption, rose 1.8 per cent a year, International Grains Council figures show. It projects in the next five years corn consumption will see an average increase of 1.8 per cent a year — almost double wheat’s expected one per cent annual rise.

“It makes sense because as people upgrade their diets they usually lower consumption of cereals for the other foods,” Patterson said in an interview Dec. 8. “The point I was making was, we shouldn’t expect high growth rates in cereal consumption.”

Farmers respond to market signals, Patterson said, which is to say they plant what they think will make them the most profit.

Based on the data, Patterson said he doesn’t expect a big jump in wheat acres, unless a crop failure somewhere results in higher prices.

But that doesn’t mean investing in wheat innovation is a waste. Increasing wheat productivity through improved varieties and agronomic practices is what farmers need to make growing the crop more profitable, Patterson said.

“That would still keep wheat in the rotation,” he said. “To be sustainable we need cereals in the rotation.”

And while private companies might make more selling the seed of higher-value crops, wheat remains the most widely grown crop in the world.

“That is still a lot of acres for a market, but it is a lower-value market compared to what you see for corn, soy, cotton and canola,” Patterson said.

Western Canadian farmers harvested 21.9 million acres of wheat this year — the lowest in five years, Statistics Canada said in its November production report.

Wheat acreage the previous five years averaged 22.2 million, down eight per cent from the previous 10-year average of 24 million.

The decline in wheat acreage isn’t isolated to Western Canada.

“(In 2012 Hans Braun, CIMMYT’s director of global wheat program observed that maize, soybeans and cotton were pushing wheat globally into marginal production areas, which lowers the yield potential,” Patterson said. “He concluded that partnerships — public-private — were the key to increased research in wheat.”

The WGRF, which administers money collected from farmers to invest in research, has been partnering with the private sector for years, he added.

Annual wheat yield increases aren’t keeping pace with population growth, Marcus Weidler, head of Seeds Canada for Bayer CropScience, said later in an interview. That and the drop in wheat acres means breeders need to boost yields even more, he added.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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