The Role of Wheat in
By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner,
Wheat is the principal grain used to make most breads and
Grown mostly in the middle latitudes and Northern
Hemisphere, annual wheat harvests are watched carefully.
As the “staff of life” to multitudes, annual harvest
assessments are important.
As harvest time approaches, government agencies, flour,
bread and pastry manufacturers, farmers and international
traders need these predictions.
A host of agencies, regional, national and international,
use numerous inventory techniques to estimate the annual
These include random sampling of farmers’ fields,
looking at the plants’ maturity, sampling a few “heads” of
grain and documenting the overall quality of the fields, as
well as using satellite imagery.
U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies use more statistical
and high tech methods for doing their own inventories. When
the data from most sources are tallied, a reasonably
accurate harvest prediction can be made.
Although wheat is one of the oldest cultivated grains, it is
under attack for its high gluten content. Nonetheless, most
of the world still demands wheat for breads, pasta and
pastries, critical food sources in the diets of most
Gluten-free diets are recommended, however, for people with
gluten allergies, a relatively newly recognized health
Wheat is the most versatile of all cereal grains. Wheat
grows best in middle latitude climates, but most of the
world’s countries cannot produce enough to satisfy the
demands of their own populations.
The United States is the largest exception–the world’s
There are five major
wheat-growing regions in the world today. The North American
region extends from North Texas into the prairies of Canada,
the Palouse of eastern Washington and Oregon and the Snake
River Plain of Idaho.
The European wheat region
extends across the European subcontinent from Spain to the
Asian wheat production is divided into three subregions,
Southern Russia and the former Soviet states along Russia’s
southern border, northern China and northwest India and
Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
Australia’s wheat region lies
mostly to the west of the Great Dividing Range and around
Perth on the west coast. Argentina’s wheat region is in the
Pampas and Patagonia.
There are a few other smaller concentrations of wheat
production, but they tend to be in isolated regions, such as
the Nile Valley of Egypt, the Maghreb of North Africa,
northwest Mexico, Middle Chile and South Africa.
Two climatic factors help determine the concentrations of
wheat production worldwide. Wheat grows well in the
wet-winter, dry-summer Mediterranean climates of Southern
Europe, Australia, South Africa and Middle Chile.
Semi-arid regions also are
conducive to wheat production in the North American Great
Plains, Ukraine, North China and the
India-Pakistan-Afghanistan axis and Argentina.
Ninety percent of the world’s wheat exports comes from the
United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina and the states
of the former Soviet Union (Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan).
The United States produces
about 10 percent of the world’s wheat, but on average is
responsible for 20 to 30 percent of the world’s wheat
As the Chinese have become more affluent over the recent
decade, China has become a major force in the world wheat
market. It is not only the world’s largest wheat producing
country, but China also imported 882,000 tons (800,000
metric tons) in 2010.
Droughts in Australia and Russia created recent turmoil in
the wheat markets a few years ago, with Russia stopping all
wheat exports one year, driving the prices of bread to
double in many places.
Similar situations can occur because of conflict. The
current Ukraine-Russian conflict is causing turbulence in
agriculture markets of Europe. Potential impacts on Ukraine
wheat production and pricing are still being assessed.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) evaluation of
U.S. durum wheat (high quality hard wheat) exports vary
enormously, from 18 billion bushels in 2008/09 to more than
61 billion in 2007/08.
Much of this variation is
related to the volatility of worldwide wheat markets, often
tied to variations in harvests and fluctuations in politics
in other countries.
All of this can increase or decrease demand for wheat
imports and exports. But natural disasters and political and
military crises also can have a huge short-term impact, as
in the Ukraine and Middle East.
So it is imperative that annual estimates of the potential
wheat harvest be accurate. The livelihoods of the many
producers, traders, shippers and exporters depend on the
predictability of the estimates’ accuracy.