Setting the stage for improving wheat quality

by Laurie Gorton
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For many in the grain-based foods community, notably wheat breeders and flour millers, interest in crop improvement never flagged, but the past few years found bakers returning to the discussion of wheat quality. Revival of the bakers’ participation strengthens overall efforts because it lends voice to the end user, according to members of the Wheat Quality Council (WQC) and industry observers.

Such intervention comes at a critical time. Wheat is under threat as never before, challenged by disease vectors as well as economic conditions and the expanding gluten-free movement.

 “Wheat is in trouble as a competitive crop in American agriculture,” said Brian Walker, manager, technical services, Horizon Flour Milling, a Cargill Joint Venture based at Minnetonka, MN. It has steadily decreased in acreage. Higher yields and higher prices make soy and corn more attractive to growers than wheat, and the emergence of switchgrass, a drought-tolerant plant, as a viable biomass for ethanol production puts further pressure on acreage normally given to wheat.

“Everyone is concerned about wheat acreage,” said Lee Sanders, senior vice-president, government relations and public affairs, American Bakers Association (ABA), Washington, DC. Two of ABA’s standing committees are involved in wheat concerns: the Commodity and Agricultural Policy Committee (CAPC) and the Food Technical Regulatory Affairs Committee (FTRAC). “Other crops are exceeding wheat on yield, and wheat seems to be standing still,” she said.

One of the largest issues is production, said Dave Green, director of quality control and lab services, ADM Milling Corp., Overland Park, KS. “According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other sources, wheat is facing a long decline in acreage,” he said. “That’s why some are pushing for biotech wheat, to make it more economically interesting to the grower.”

Acreage concerns are one factor attracting the bakers’ interest. Another is its baking quality, particularly as measured in absorption and finished product attributes. The latter can make a big difference in consumer popularity.

“When I talk with customers, the most important thing is baking quality,” Mr. Green said. “Millers worry about yield and extraction, but the overwhelming factor is baking quality.”

Balancing the competitive yield potential with the needed quality could direct the path ahead for the American wheat crop. “Wheat producers urge breeders to produce crops with competitive earning potential. This is very, very important,” Mr. Walker said. Continuous improvement in wheat’s baking quality, in this process, is key. “The wheat breeders need to continue listening to the bakers. Their needs are always changing,” he added. Read complete story.

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