Global flour data painting picture

by Morton Sosland
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Morton Sosland
The temptation is great to describe this year’s compilation of data on international wheat flour production by the International Grains Council as affirming once again that milling, regardless of location, is well defined by small, even tiny, changes. Since anyone the least bit familiar with the flour milling business would scoff at such a conclusion differing greatly from how milling executives regard their operations, the need arises to explain what makes for these two contrary impressions. It does not require intense inquiry to grasp widely varied assessments. This thinking is propelled by how national production numbers are inaccurate in describing how individual companies and mills are running. Yes, it is also important to know how much flour is being produced nationally or within smaller geographic divisions. But it can be misleading to link individual companies or plants to geographic data.

Without citing the data for individual plants or companies, the differences at work are underscored by statistics covering the U.S. milling industry. For the 2016 calendar year, U.S. production of wheat flour decreased a slight 0.2 per cent from the prior year, after three years of being steady. Relatively few states turned out the same quantity of flour in both 2016 and 2015, while major output changes ranged from a decrease of 4 per cent in Pennsylvania to a rise of 7 per cent in North Dakota. These are not the largest shifts among states and state groupings, but the spread illustrates how unwise it may be to relate national figures to specific entities.

Hardly anything is more striking in I.G.C. flour output data than the sharp fall in Western European output. Reductions in 2014 output from the prior year include 6.7 per cent in Germany, 3.8 per cent in France and 5.5 per cent in the United Kingdom. Output figures are lacking for such producers as Italy. Seldom have national output figures registered such sharp changes, up or down, and these data would seem to indicate a marked reduction in flour demand in what once was the strongest demand region.

Even while ruling out the applicability of national operating results to single plants or groups, some of the national statistics provide guidance to understanding what may be transpiring in such a dynamic business. Nowhere is the rising role of wheat flour foods more apparent than in output data for Indonesia. Its wheat flour output increased 6 per cent in 2014 following a 13 per cent gain in 2013. Already regarded as the fastest growing flour market in the world, Indonesia only bolstered its leadership.

Regardless of how valuable the I.G.C. data on national flour production may be, its utility for gaining a complete picture is lessened by those countries that do not cooperate in providing flour data. Nations like Egypt, Nigeria, Australia and Italy are among non-responders, in part for just one or two years and in others for a long time. Of huge importance but also omitted are China and India, the two largest consumers of wheat-based foods as measured by their populations. It is shameful that milling data are missing for all of these countries.

Largely because of missing flour numbers, students of this important part of the world food economy must rely on I.G.C. self-determined estimates of wheat food use. Here the Council utilizes its own resources to estimate that food use of wheat in 2017-18 will for the first time in history pass 500 million tonnes, with a figure of 503.5 million. Increases are looked for in every crop year, spurred by both population gains and rising economic conditions favoring wheat food demand. Thanks to the I.G.C., data are at hand affirming that global milling is doing well regardless of harrowing changes under way in a few areas.
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