Corn creates route for wheat progress

by Morton Sosland
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Even as debating persists about the conversion of grain into biofuels, the arguing over economic and environmental values tends to mask one of the real positives, and that is its incontrovertibility as a grain production stimulus. Hardly any matter is more important to grain-based foods than having a sufficiently sized wheat crop assuring adequate supplies for domestic use as well as being large enough to allow for careful selection of desired quantities. At times in the past worrying about this not being the case would have been ridiculous. There were wheat harvests in the United States spurred by both domestic food and export demand and high comparative yields to combine to make for outturns that were multiples of milling’s annual needs. As the food grind has gained, wheat plantings have decreased to a point that discussing this issue has present-day reality.

It is the National Corn Growers’ Association, responding to a report from the World Resources Institute attacking what it calls “dramatically exaggerated” claims about biofuels that best describes the growth of corn production. The association, in asserting the annual crop is “more than enough to meet all demands,” says:

“Our farmers have grown the largest 11 corn crops in history over the last 11 years — and we’re doing so more efficiently than ever. Since 1980 corn yields have increased by a remarkable 88 per cent. In the last 30 years, corn farmers have significantly reduced the environmental impact of producing corn, including 30 per cent less land, 44 per cent less energy and 53 per cent less water.”

The association also points out how processing corn to make biofuels creates a supply of waste for fuel use as well as large quantities of animal feed. All of these gains, it asserts, outweigh claims that use of corn in this manner has driven up food prices, has worsened some types of air pollution and has done little to reduce global emissions of carbon dioxide. These are the principal negatives cited by those who attack the biofuels program, which features governmental mandates requiring biofuel use in gasoline.

The upward trajectory of corn production is one of the wonders of modern agriculture. It outstrips what has occurred in wheat by a massive margin, particularly in the average yield. The 88 per cent corn yield gain since 1980 contrasts with the 30 per cent rise for wheat in the same period. The eleven runs of near record-sized corn crops are in stark contrast to the 2014 wheat crop being 15 per cent smaller than harvested in 1980. Acreage planted and harvested of wheat is down a third from 1980, which underscores the ways in which producers have reacted to wheat returns sharply different from corn.

Corn enjoys both genetic and historical advantages over wheat in achieving expanded industrial uses. This does not rule out possibilities for similar progress in discovering uses for wheat that would extend beyond present-day food and limited other uses besides feed. Limited research dollars have been allocated to wheat, where study priorities and genetic complexities stand in the way of active pursuit of new uses.

The important point amidst continuing controversy over what has happened in corn is that expanding the use of a crop, either wheat or corn or anything else, should be to the advantage of all the processors of that crop. Sure, finding ways to make new products from wheat would spur competition for the grain from an expanded universe, but that expansion itself is positive. Absent this sort of development, wheat is likely to continue to lose position as a major crop. This possibility has rightly attracted attention even though it seems many years in the future. As counter-intuitive as it might seem to present-day participants in grain-based foods, each has as much to gain from progress on this score as any pioneering 1980/81 industry that might be created by newfound wonders of wheat.

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