The oldest cultivated
grain may, after more than 10,000 years, regain a bit of the limelight it has
lost in the last couple of years.
Not since 1997-98,
when it was overtaken by corn, has wheat been the world's most produced cereal,
a title it held for millennia.
Now, world farmers
produce 40% more corn than wheat.
But if corn's advance
has really been fuelled by expanded investment and technological innovations,
including genetically modified seed, then wheat could be poised for a bit of
While the European
Union, the world's biggest wheat producer, frowns on GM technology, the
opportunities for technological advances to "give growers more crop options" remain
robust, said Mac Marshall, an economist at Monsanto, tells Agrimoney.com.
Mr Marshall puts great
stress on "digital ag" – the use of data on best practice to promote more
efficient use of existing technologies in the likes of seed, fertilizers and
agrichemicals, and so supercharge yields.
Sure, the average US
corn yield hit a record 175 bushels per acre last year.
"But we have a couple
of places in the country where growers have harvested 500 bushels an acre."
Digital ag "is about
narrowing the gap between the average, and what you can conceivably achieve."
"Digital tools can
really help growers realise the potential of their farms."
Question of choice
Returning to wheat, UK
farmer Rod Smith achieved a world record yield of 16.52 tonnes per hectare in
2015, when the European Union average was 6.29 tonnes per hectare. (The record
was taken in February by New Zealand's Eric Watson, with a result of 16.79
tonnes per hectare.)
However, while wheat
may remain a mainstay of farmers in Europe, for whom high-yielding GM
alternatives are not an option, the popularity of the grain has steadily
declined in the US.
US farmers are this
year expected to sow a 100+ year low of 46.1m acres of the grain, extending a
slide from 75.1m acres in 1996 – while preparing to plant (mainly GM) soybeans
in record amounts.
But making wheat more
appealing to them, through yield advances enabled through technology such as
digital tools, would render the grain a stronger option for inclusion in
growers' sowing programmes.
Illinois vs France
That would be a
benefit to more than farmers themselves who, given greater choice of
high-performing crops, stand to lift their margin prospects.
Indeed, Mr Marshall
notes the foregone opportunities for growers without access to premier
"For example, between
the 1970s and 1990s, corn yields had a higher annual rate of gain in France than
in Illinois," the second-highest US corn-producing state.
"But over the past 20
years, you've seen acceleration in the rate of gain for Illinois but
significant deceleration in France.
"You've seen the same
trend of increase in Ontario, which is a region in Canada with a similar
agronomic profile to France – but with access to GM technology and commensurate
increased adoption rates."
Denying growers the
"critical tool" of GM has meant a "lot of foregone opportunity for the farming
sectors in countries without it".
To this point, if
France had seen the same rate of gain over the past 20 years as Illinois, its
cumulative productivity increase would have been over 1.5bn bushels, according
to Monsanto. [With link to HP piece.]
By contrast, in South
America, GM technology has "enabled a whole new industry - we now have soybean
farming as a vocation".
growers would not have been able to grow soybeans "with the degree of
efficiency that has made Argentina and Brazil into powerhouses" in the crop. Since
1996, soybean area in Argentina and Brazil has tripled to nearly 55 million
'All in it together'
And it is not just
growers which stand to profit from technological advance.
growers mean better prospects for the companies which supply them, such as
machinery and fertilizer makers, and indeed seed groups such as Monsanto.
"We are all in the
industry better off when those who grow crops are better off," Mr Marshall
consumer gains too, through more certain food supplies which, in being cheaper
to produce, come at a lower cost to them too.
"The benefits are felt
throughout the whole food chain," he says, flagging a "social responsibility"
too to help ensure food production is maximised.
No cause for complacency
The stakes are high,
with Mr Marshall frowning on ideas that a build in world grain stocks means
that agriculture has demand needs under control.
'oversupply' position is just that – it's a position, not a structural change."
This season, global
stocks of food commodities – protein, grain, and oilseeds - are equivalent to
about 75 days' supply, he says.
"It does not make much
of a change in production to get to the 60 days we saw in 2007-08, when we saw
food riots, and food prices skyrocketed - to go from oversupply to a relative
Helped by largely
benign weather, "we are coming off the back of four very, very strong
production years for corn, soybeans and wheat.
"But Mother Nature is
not always that kind."
Mac Marshall will be speaking on Agrimoney LIVE's Agri-tech Investment day. Fore more information please click here.