More wheat, rice solve problems

For global food supply to be increased dramatically, wheat and rice, the mainstay grains of many food items, need to be targeted for major biotechnology advancements.

My way of thinking about these grains was reinforced at the "Food and Fuel Forum" organized by the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City during October. The forum was co-hosted by several organizations and companies including Vance Publishing/Food 360.

The lack of wheat production to meet world demand was identified as a major problem by both Morton Sosland, editor-in-chief, Sosland Publishing Company, which publishes Milling and Baking News, and Robb MacKie, president of the American Bakers Association (ABA).

Sosland said wheat continues to lose out to corn and soybean production when a farmer has the choice of the three crops to grow, "and it is the absence of genetic modification of wheat that explains why this crop is losing the yield derby to corn and beans."

He continued, "Without delving too deeply into this issue, let me note that the lack of genetic modification of wheat largely is explained by the resistance of grain-based foods to the promise of this science, on account of fears of consumer reactions."

MacKie said 2008 could have been the worst financial year in the history of the baking business. Bakers were caught in the middle because of wheat supply and exorbitant price. The situation was the major reason five wholesale bakers closed their doors in 2008.

In line with Sosland's beliefs, MacKie said, "Wheat in particular has gotten the short end of the stalk in research." But he wasn't prepared to suggest that his organization would back biotech wheat development. Instead the organization is lobbying for "basic research for wheat to improve yield and quality" by government, university and private industry.

Providing facts and figures with analysis of the worldwide situation during the Food and Fuel Forum were Randy Schnept, specialist in agricultural policy with the Congressional Research Service, and Dan Gustafson, director of the North American Liaison Office of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
Both explained the worldwide situation with rice supply during 2008. It was panic that limited rice supply and exploded the price of rice, they said.

Rice prices floated along at a reasonable price increase from 2004 until India put a ban on export of rice, and the price of rice went "vertically up," said Gustafson. Schnept explained how it was a domino effect with Asian countries as they suddenly enacted their protectionism policies of no exports in case their population needed all the rice produced, although there wasn't demand higher than supply.

The U.S. is vital to exporting food to feed the world, but developing countries must increase their own production, too. "Increased farm income is by far the most powerful engine for poverty reduction anywhere," Gustafson said.

He suggested food prices will likely be linked to oil prices more tightly for the future than ever in the past. "I think it is a very important point that the demand for biofuels is not necessarily the main factor in that link. It is the price of oil that stimulates the demand for biofuels, but there is a connection we didn't have before."

Shortages of grain, whether they exist in reality or perception, will occur to some scale in undeveloped countries at various times in the future. The controversy about biotech wheat and rice will continue, even if it appears to be a logical partial solution.

Additionally, no matter the price being paid farmers for corn, soybeans, wheat or rice, there will be some level of international outcry about the use of grains for feed or fuel next year and beyond.